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Hit the brakes hard

Filed under: — group @ 29 April 2009 - (Español)

There is a climate splash in Nature this week, including a cover showing a tera-tonne weight, presumably meant to be made of carbon (could it be graphite?), dangling by a thread over the planet, and containing two new articles (Allen et al and Meinshausen et al), a “News & Views” piece written by two of us, and a couple commentaries urging us to “prepare to adapt to at least 4° C” and to think about what the worst case scenario (at 1000 ppm CO2) might look like.

At the heart of it are the two papers which calculate the odds of exceeding a predefined threshold of 2°C as a function of CO2 emissions. Both find that the most directly relevant quantity is the total amount of CO2 ultimately released, rather than a target atmospheric CO2 concentration or emission rate. This is an extremely useful result, giving us a clear statement of how our policy goals should be framed. We have a total emission quota; if we keep going now, we will have to cut back more quickly later.

There is uncertainty in the climate sensitivity of the Earth and in the response of the carbon cycle, and the papers are extremely useful in the way that they propagate these uncertainties to the probabilities of different amounts of warming. Just looking at the median model results, many people conclude that a moderately optimistic but not terribly aggressive scenario such as IPCC B1 would avoid 2°C warming relative to pre-industrial. But when you take into account the uncertainty, you find that there is a disturbingly high likelihood (roughly even odds) that it won’t.

Schmidt and Archer N and V figureBoth papers come to the same broad conclusion, summarized in our figure, that unless humankind puts on the brakes very quickly and aggressively (i.e. global reductions of 80% by 2050), we face a high probability of driving climate beyond a 2°C threshold taken by both studies as a “danger limit”. Comparing the two papers is obscured by the different units; mass of carbon versus mass of CO2 (moles, anyone? Is there a chemist in the house?). But chugging through the math, we find the papers to be broadly consistent. Both papers conclude that humankind is already about half-way toward releasing enough carbon to probably reach 2°C, and that most of the fossil fuel carbon (the coal, in particular) will have to remain in the ground.

We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.

Also, there are dangers to CO2 emission other than the peak, such as the long tail of the CO2 perturbation which will dominate the ultimate sea level response, and the acidification of the ocean. A building may be safe from earthquakes but if it is susceptible to fires it is still considered unsafe.

The sorts of emission cuts that are required are technologically feasible, if we were to build wind farms instead of coal plants, an integrated regional or global electrical power grid, and undertake a crash program in energy efficiency. But getting everybody to agree to this is the discouraging part. The commentary by Parry et al advises us to prepare to adapt to climate changes of at least 4°C, even though they recognize that it may not be possible to buy our way out of most of the damage (to natural systems, for example, including the irreversible loss of many plant and animal species). Anyway, how does one “adapt” to a train wreck? There is also the fairness issue, in that the beneficiaries of fossil energy (rich countries today) are not the ones who pay the costs (less-rich countries decades from now). We wonder why we were not advised to prepare to adapt to crash curtailing CO2 emissions, which sounds to us considerably less frightening.

p.s. For our German-speaking readers: Stefan’s commentary on the KlimaLounge blog.

604 Responses to “Hit the brakes hard”

  1. 101
    Mark Cunnington says:

    Let’s do a little calculation…. which shows that if automakers made cars that were covered with solar panels instead of paint (incorporate them into the bodywork), and you covered your windows with solar panels when not using your car, you could drive 30 km a day for free with today’s technology, and 50 km a day with slight improvements.

    Sun shining down on sunny day: 800 W / m2
    Area of car available to harness this: 5 m2
    Therefore, available energy shining on car: 4 kW
    Efficiency of solar panels: let’s be generous, 25%
    Therefore, available energy from solar panels: 1 kW
    Length of time sunlight available: let’s say 8 hours
    Therefore, total energy available per day: 8 kw hours
    Add in efficiency loss in charging electric car batteries: 7
    Energy usage of electric car: 0.23 / km
    Therefore, the car could go (7 / 0.23) = 28 km a day, for free, in the sunshine. Add in future improvements in efficiencies and you could push this to 50 km. This is not science fiction.

    What would be the cost of adding this feature? The cost of the solar panels themselves would be a thousand or 2. Then the rest of the cost is simply in manufacture, but if they were mass produced by the millions, this would drop significantly. The savings in fuel economy would pay for the increased cost of this feature. Why aren’t they doing this? Because the auto companies don’t like being told what to do, they are run by dinosaur cronies who want to move at a snail’s pace. They need a serious kick in the ass. If they don’t innovate, others like Tesla will overtake them, but the problem is that it will take Tesla et al a few years to get up to mass production and we don’t have that time.

  2. 102
    Mark Cunnington says:

    Birds being killed by wind turbines was mostly a myth



    Bird deaths from wind turbines all depend on siting. Some areas are bad, others have virtually no kill.

  3. 103
    ccpo says:

    Re: #3 John Bergeson
    How DOES one adapt to a train wreck?

    May make a few suggestions?

    1. Power down. Incredible amounts of energy are wasted. Stop wasting. But this means real, sometimes exceptionally difficult (for us spoiled first and second worlders) lifestyle changes. E.g., don’t eat out. Don’t indulge in entertainment that isn’t within walking distance. Play/have fun with your family and neighbors, instead. Turn off your TV. Localize.

    1b. Nationwide program to get homes/communities off-grid and homes highly efficient. Cost: 0.5 Trillion. Here’s a sketch:

    2. Grow a garden/allotment/small farm plot. Eat only food grown within 100 miles of your home. All using natural farming/permaculture/biointensive methods, etc.

    3. Join an intentional community/ecovillage.

    4. Join the Transition Town movement.

    5. Start doing outreach, even if it makes you unpopular.

    6. Understand that exponential growth is a big part of the problem. Help undo the systems that not only make it the center of their planning and policy, but require it to function. Look into steady state economy.

    And so much more, particularly in terms of details.


    ReCAPTCHA says: warlock presents
    Query: How did they know????

  4. 104
    steve says:

    #85 Mark I will give this one last try since you seem oblivious to my point. My point was that all of the reasons I listed had caused the slowing of progress in the field of renewable energy and should not be allowed to. My point was not that they were legitimate reasons. I will not respond to any more comments from you that do not address my point especially since you seem to be arguing my position to me as if it were enlightening.

  5. 105
    Mark says:

    “appear to turn their faces against any major expansion in the use power from nuclear fission, apparently regardless of the type of fission.”

    Because fissionable materials are no better than coal in their needs for mining. They run out, are placed inappropriately, cost lots, demand (and get) subsidies and take lots of time and money to build and need careful decommissioning and do not produce any power until complete.

    A wind turbine can start producing as soon as one is linked to the grid.

    I would also say that those who propose nuclear power ignore the renewables, regardless of the type of renewable.

  6. 106
    SteveF says:

    I don’t think it’s been mentioned yet, but here’s an enjoyable press conference by Michael Mann, Gabi Hegerl and Hugues Goose following last weeks climate of the last millenium session at EGU:

  7. 107
    ccpo says:

    Re: #4 Jim Bullis

    Technological feasibility is not meaningful without including the financial affordability factors.

    Spend some time on The Oil Drum. It is, in my opinion, the best discussion of energy issues on the internet. Even if you don’t understand peak oil production issues – or give damn – the discussions are wide-ranging, often quite technical, and extensive.

    Wind, for example, you will find discussed in terms of energy needed, costs, energy produced, whether it can serve as peak load, base load, mini-generators, Liebig’s Minimum, locations… etc.

    Also, perhaps equally important, if not more important, in the long run are discussions of EROI/EROEI. Lots of that there, but not much discussed anywhere else.

    Disclaimer: post there, not a member of the team, and not one of their favorite posters, so consider this an objective suggestion.


  8. 108
    Theo Hopkins says:

    Dave @ 72 wrote:

    ““There is also the fairness issue, in that the beneficiaries of fossil energy (rich countries today) are not the ones who pay the costs (less-rich countries decades from now).”

    Right! Damn good thing that such an exceptional, rich country as the United States will not have any costs from meters of sea level rise. I guess that means I can go back to my favorite pastime of sleep walking into history.”

    Umm. Is this meant to be tongue in cheek? Sorry if I don’t understand.

  9. 109
    SecularAnimist says:

    Douglas Wise: “I am therefore surprised that Ike Solem (#14), Joseph Romm (#15) and SecularAnimist (#18)all prosetalise about the risks we face and the benefits of wind and solar energy solutions but, nevertheless, appear to turn their faces against any major expansion in the use power from nuclear fission … I suspect that they may have minds that were closed in their youth by anti-nuclear sentiments and have ceased to be rational on the subject.”

    In my experience, discussions of nuclear power with nuclear proponents who begin the discussion by accusing nuclear critics of having “minds closed in their youth by irrational anti-nuclear sentiments” are not likely to be fruitful or edifying.

    Having said that, I believe that a rational consideration of nuclear power as it relates to the problem of global warming leads to the conclusion that an expansion of nuclear power is neither a necessary nor a particularly effective solution for reducing GHG emissions from the generation of electricity. Since nuclear power is neither a necessary nor an effective way to address global warming, there is no need to debate the very real, very serious problems and dangers of nuclear technology.

    Today’s mainstream wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy technologies, combined with efficiency improvements, can do the job better, faster and cheaper than nuclear power, without the problems of nuclear power.

    The “fourth generation” nuclear power plants that nuclear proponents love to talk about are science fiction. They are not a technology that is available, demonstrated, proven and ready to build now, nor will they be within the time frame within which large emissions are needed.

    And the conventional nuclear power plants currently under construction are, as always, way over budget and way behind schedule and fraught with problems.

    Meanwhile, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and efficiency technologies are here, now, and can be rapidly scaled up to make significant emissions reductions very quickly. Wind and solar in particular are already growing rapidly worldwide, at record-breaking double-digit rates every year.

    And new, emerging renewable technologies — e.g. ultra-cheap, high-efficiency thin-film solar — are poised to truly revolutionize the way we generate, distribute and use electricity.

    The USA has vast commercially exploitable wind, solar and geothermal energy resources, far more than enough to generate all the electricity we need to sustain a comfortable, technologically advanced civilization. I agree with the new head of FERC that the USA probably will never need to build another coal or nuclear power plant again. I think that in a sustainable energy economy of the future, most electricity will be generated, stored and used locally, and large centralized generating stations (which by then will be predominantly wind turbine farms and concentrating solar thermal power plants, coal and nuclear having been phased out) will play a much smaller role.

  10. 110
    Doug Bostrom says:

    The discussion here does not make me optimistic about our chances for a coherent response…

    Captcha “warpaths”, heh!

  11. 111
    ccpo says:

    #21 Walt Bennet
    1. We must develop methods by which we draw down atmospheric CO2

    1. We must invest in technological advances which can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

    Walt: why is it that with all the increases in technology and efficiency energy consumption still eventually rises?

    Population and the Growth Paradigm. Without considering these two points, your suggestions are just as doomed to failure as any other.

    I am an eclectic in most things. Rarely is there only one answer or a problem with only one facet. Carbon capture? Sure. Possibly decades away, if ever. All eggs in one basket? Is this wise?

    Societies and/or civilizations DO fail. Ours will. Maybe now, maybe in a thousand years, but it will. (My money is on now if we follow your growth paradigm.)

    See my previous post as to some better long-term answers than “Technology can do it, but we can’t.”


  12. 112
    Karen Street says:

    Re 104, um, no mining is needed, no manufacturing occurs, for renewables?

    While a nuclear power plant requires a truckload of fuel every 18 months, and produces a truckload of waste, a coal power plant requires a 3-mile train of coal per day. There does appear to be a difference.

    I suggested the IPCC and IEA writings because I read people writing of their fears and hopes. If we’re going to address climate change, it’s going to start with solutions experts agree on (efficiency, low-GHG sources such as nuclear, carbon capture and storage, wind, geothermal, cellulosic biofuels, and eventually solar), and processes that experts agree on (increasing the cost of GHG emissions, funding more R&D, mandates sometimes). These will be a minimum. To reduce GHG emissions to a level that may keep temperature increase below 2°C, more will be needed. What I hear from so many in the public, and so many in this discussion, is that we can get there by subtracting solutions.

    I’m worried enough about climate change that I would prefer not to do that.

  13. 113
    Mark says:

    “My point was that all of the reasons I listed had caused the slowing of progress in the field of renewable energy and should not be allowed to.”

    How do you get “and should not be allowed to” from:

    “just out of curiosity where exactly are we going to put windmills that don’t have a chance of killing birds or ruining someone’s ocean view.”

    If you’d said “There is nowhere you can build anything that won’t have a chance of killing birds or ruining someone’s view” then you’d have something.

  14. 114
    Peter Williams says:

    re 48:

    Apologies; I did not read your into paragraph carefully enough.

    In any case, please understand I meant my comments as a critique, not a criticism. And, I well understand the notion that no good deed goes unpunished, so I commend you for everything you do and how you thereby open yourself up to such critiques, criticisms, and outright attacks.

    However, getting the public to understand this problem is, I am sure you would agree, far more important than any one person’s ego, and to make absolutely certain that the public sees the science as coolheaded rational inquiry, we must adhere to standards far far far exceeding anything that the deniers have to offer.

    Jim Bullis (#4) is right on when he says:
    “When you folks, however well intentioned, venture into prescribed solutions, you can not claim quite the level of authority that you have, and deserve, in analyzing climate effects. This is not to say that people that understand physics can not bring that to bear in analyzing technical solutions. That would be welcome.”

    For the sake of our children we *must* win the argument in the public sphere. To do so, it is absolutely essential that when you comment on things, you make it 100% clear when you are commenting as a scientist speaking from your area of expertise, and when you are commenting as somebody who is perhaps knowledgeable but not expert.

    When scientists comment on things that they are not expert on, it makes them appear elitist, and it devalues their credibility in the public sphere on things that they ARE expert on. (I said something similar in my comments which you edited – what ethical standard is that, BTW?)

    If my comments get your feathers ruffled, may I suggest that instead of editing my comments out, put your ego aside and take a deep breath and realize that I am on your side.

  15. 115
    walter crain says:

    mark (#75)

    i personally find the mainstream scientific consensus’ arguments MUCH more convincing than the “skeptic” arguments. but that’s because i’m a reasonably intelligent well-educated scientifically-literate person who’s “plugged in” to the global warming discussion. you guys have a distorted perspective here because you’re even way more plugged in than i am. for most people “global warming” is something they only think about for one minute a day, maybe when they catch a snippet of something on the news or in the paper. i think when they hear of some list of dissenting “maverick” scientists – entered in the congressional record no less! – it resonates. when they read george will in a (supposedly reputable) newspaper saying global ice is just like it was in 1979, it resonates. it allows for doubt. doubt allows them to oppose any mitigating efforts and still maintain a clear conscience.

    for your average person out there – who probably didn’t even get to physics or chemistry in high school, and if they did, they probably hated it – the latest graph showing clear evidence of global warming looks like gobbledygook. most could probably be convinced it shows whatever a clever “explainer” tells them it shows. they rely on the scientific consensus. but, while the scientific consensus is getting stronger, the publics’ opinion is wavering, due to the extremely effective PR campaign of the denialists.

    so when i’m talking to people out there and they can produce a stupid list of dissenting scientists, i can’t explain to them about the radiative proberties of co2 and feedbacks and so on. and if i can’t produce a stupid list of “believing” scientists, well…it sucks…(that’s why i keep bugging gavin about project jim… sorry gavin, sort of…)

  16. 116
    Wilmot McCutchen says:

    The denialists have a well-funded team of professional spinmeisters, who are adept at swaying ignorant decision-makers. The Green Team has a poorly-funded association of well-intentioned scientists, who tend to talk way over the head of a lay audience. Two degrees C — who cares? Doesn’t sound like much, and what is a C anyway? Maybe this is why the Green Team is losing the battle for public opinion: they disdain to dumb down their message and put the crisis in terms that a lay audience can understand.

    How about this: The body’s normal temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and a 2 C rise would cause a fever of 102.2 which is enough to kill the germs that are causing the fever. Same with Mother Earth: we are behaving like an infection, and she’s getting a fever which will kill us soon if we don’t change our ways.

  17. 117
    Alexandre says:

    Re: Douglas Wise #97

    This study of Pacala and Socolow is already sort of a classic about the big changes needed to stabilize emmisions.

    They include nuclear energy. I was never a big fan of it myself, but I recognize we have to explore every bit of solution available at this point. (bear in mind they wrote it in 2004. Technology, emmisions and knowledge have evolved a bit since)

    Although in light of the studies of this topic, the huge changes suggested by P & S are probably only the first step needed.

    I´m convinced the solutions are within the reach of humankind´s capabilities. It remains to be seen if we´re able to go for what we need, instead of what we immediatly want.

  18. 118
    Walt Bennett says:

    Gavin warned me that “nobody wants to have this discussion” and I can see that he’s quite right.

    We have those who say that this just gives more ammo to the denialists, who will (correctly) point out that our own science is telling us that we can’t prevent the warming (of course, more warming is even worse, but that would be the NEXT conversation after this one); we have philosophers telling us that the planet has a fever and we are the infection which caused it; we have many, many more who continue to insist that maybe NOW we will finally undertake drastic emissions reductions.

    And when they’re all done with these “observations” (to be gracious about it), here we still are, staring at the same set of facts.

    We now know that “other” emissions are part of the “uncertainty.”

    Excuse me? The only “uncertainty” about those emissions is how much of them there will be. There is no confusion about the sign. We need some sort of estimate, don’t we? Without one, the “trillion ton” limit is meaningless as a guide for human emissions, and without question we can conclude that our “share” of that “pie” is even smaller than the reports indicate.


    [Response: You have misread the papers. The slug being talked about is the anthropogenic emission. Potential carbon cycle feedbacks (which are generally expected to be amplifying) go into the temperature responses and their uncertainty is a big part of the ranges given. – gavin]

  19. 119
    SecularAnimist says:

    Karen Street wrote: “If we’re going to address climate change, it’s going to start with solutions experts agree on (efficiency, low-GHG sources such as nuclear, carbon capture and storage, wind, geothermal, cellulosic biofuels, and eventually solar) …”

    “Experts” certainly do NOT “agree” that nuclear or carbon capture and storage are either necessary or effective. Some “experts” argue that nuclear and CCS can, should or even must play an important role, while others strongly disagree.

    I am not an expert, just an ordinary citizen who has followed energy issues for 40 years; but for what it’s worth, I think that nuclear and coal-with-CCS are neither necessary (since we can get all the electricity we need, and more, from renewables) nor effective (since nuclear will take too long to build up to the point where it makes any significant contribution, and working CCS doesn’t exist and is unlikely to exist for decades). Thus investment in these technologies diverts precious resources from more effective solutions and hinders rather than helps the effort to reduce GHG emissions.

    I’d also note that you mention “cellulosic biofuels, and eventually solar.”

    This is odd because solar — including photovoltaics, concentrating solar thermal, and solar space & water heating — is a mature, commercialized technology that is already being installed in quantity today, both as centralized utility-scale electricity generation and as distributed, small-to-mid-scale electricity and heat generation.

    On the other hand, the technology to produce cellulosic biofuels is still in development and far from ready for prime time.

    So you really ought to say “solar, and eventually cellulosic biofuels”.

  20. 120
    Walt Bennett says:


    Perhaps renewable energy needs its own Robert Moses.

    It is staggering, the number of constituencies which seem to serve singular purposes with utter blindness to the effects of those positions beyond their narrow view. Clearly, we are in for many more years of haggling over placement of solar and wind farms and so forth.

    It is also worth noting that water turbine is a current clean, renewable source of energy which will actually become more scarce. At some point, for example, the Hoover Dam turbines will become less effective as the Colorado loses more and more volume.

    We certainly do need a broad array of solutions and the will to implement them. But by all the evidence in front of us, our children’s children will be adults by the time meaningful levels of renewable energy are achieved, especially when we remember that as far as AGW is concerned, national borders are meaningless.

  21. 121
    Karen Street says:

    recommendations in cases like this.

    There are plenty of experts around, and I should have specified, expert peer review analysis acceptable to IPCC.

    Re Pacala and Socolow, I find myself attracted to their concept of the wedge. I’ve stopped using this concept in my own teaching, however, because IPCC does not use it. More importantly, many believe that we need only 7 or 8 wedges (stabilization need assuming, as P&S did, that growth is below average expected, rather than above maximum planned for, as is actually the case). Also, many in the public believe that it’s a matter of selecting whatever wedge I want (I’ll take two of energy efficiency and one of solar, and…)

  22. 122
    Walt Bennett says:

    Re: #118


    Let’s go over this more slowly, it’s very important:

    First, keep in mind that I have not read the papers because they are behind the subscription wall. I am relying on you and others to address specifics.

    Second, as I understand it, human emissions must be capped at 1 trillion tons of carbon by 2050, and we are more than a half of the way there already. Now, it seems to me that it doesn’t matter where the carbon comes from. If oceanic outgassing and thawing permafrost contribute 250 tons of carbon by 2050, won’t that mean that we have to limit our emissions even further?

    If my understanding is flawed, I will ask that you help me to overcome that misunderstanding, and I thank you in advance for taking the time to do so.

  23. 123
    Richard Ordway says:

    #58 “Well, from the looks of the discussions over the years, chemists apparently aren’t qualified to participate, nor wanted, in the climate debate.”

    Well, the National Center for Atmopspheric Research (NCAR) has an entire separate chemisty division. They are considered essential to studying the climate change issue from my obvervations there.

    I would hardly say that anyone is excluding them.

    Then don’t forget about paleo geochemistry and the exciting published work the chemists are doing on past times of (relatively slow to today) global warming.

    Kump, Geology; May 2005; v. 33; no. 5; p. 397-400; DOI: 10.1130/G21295.1

    Beerling, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 15 July 2007 vol. 365 no. 1856 1843-1866

    Meyer, Geology; September 2008; v. 36; no. 9; p. 747-750; DOI: 10.1130/G24618A.1, etc.

  24. 124
    James says:

    Anne van der Bom Says (30 April 2009 at 6:34 AM):

    “Google for ‘Horns Rev II’, that 200 MW offshore windfarm is currently being built in Denmark for a total investment of 450 million Euros. Estimated production is 800 GWh per year.”

    So can I use that as a reasonable basis for a cost comparison? Assume typical nuclear plant of 1 GWatt capacity, 1 Euro = 1.32 USD (today’s exchange rate), gives $2.97 billion cost. But that’s nameplate rating. Actual generation is typicallly about 1/3 nameplate, their numbers imply they expect 0.46 * nameplate, so I’ll use that, and assume the reactor has 90% uptime (recent US average is 91-92%). This gives $5.85 billion as the cost of wind generation equal to one nuclear plant, not all that far from the estimated cost of the nuclear plant. Plus of course you need to add some cost for storage, because of the intermittent nature of wind.

    Mark Says (30 April 2009 at 11:19 AM)

    “Because fissionable materials are no better than coal in their needs for mining.”

    Yes, they are better, because you need to mine something like 0.1% as much uranium as coal to produce the same energy.

    “They run out, are placed inappropriately, cost lots, demand (and get) subsidies and take lots of time and money to build and need careful decommissioning and do not produce any power until complete.”

    And all of this is not likewise true of renewables? You think the concrete, steel, aluminium, copper, & composites going into a wind turbine don’t have to be mined?

    “A wind turbine can start producing as soon as one is linked to the grid.”

    This is what I call the fallacy of scale, which you also see in cost calculations. ONE wind turbine or ONE solar panel is fairly cheap, and can be constructed quickly. Building the number needed to equal the output of one nuclear plant costs about as much, and takes about as long, as building the plant.

    “I would also say that those who propose nuclear power ignore the renewables, regardless of the type of renewable.”

    Then you are absolutely wrong. I think renewables are great, and should be used wherever they’re reasonably cost-effictive and don’t cause major environmental effects. It’s just that I don’t think they can completely replace fossil fuel generation, given current or forseeable technology, and as the articles that are the topic of this thread should have made clear, we desperately need to do just that.

    Indeed, I think the position’s often reversed: those who are most in favor of renewables won’t consider nuclear at all, and usually base their objections on quasi-religious grounds, such as the absurd claim that nuclear workers might start glowing in the dark!

  25. 125
    dave p says:

    Re. 43 I am surprised India is so in to wind power, since in that country solar would be more natural. Covering just a few thousnad square miles of it’s deserts with solar facilities would slove it’s power problems. In the hot latitudes covering just 250,000 sq km with solar panels could produce enough electricity for the entire world.

  26. 126
    Karen Street says:

    Something got truncated, here’s the missing section:

    Secular animist, by experts, I’m referring to the uber reports acceptable to IPCC.

    I have not seen any report in this category with an expectation that solar will come in at under $50/metric ton carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, or that solar will supply even 1% of world energy by then. This includes solar thermal power.

    There are plenty of experts not acceptable to IPCC with other views. I remember hearing a talk at UC, Berkeley about a group of experts who had been invited to discuss together low level nuclear waste sites. The experts were of two kinds: had produced peer reviewed articles in the field, and had a web site. The first kind of expert thought their work was to evaluate storage of low level nuclear waste, primarily medical. The second type of expert thought their work was to stop nuclear power. The speaker, from the first category of expert, discussed how hard decision-making can be in cases like this.

    There are plenty of experts around, and I should have specified, expert peer review analysis acceptable to IPCC.

  27. 127
    Theo Hopkins says:


    I don’t know if my recent posting got to RC as it was flagged up as spam.

    Apparently my use of the political/economic word “s*ciali s t” contained the name of a drug that does you-know-what!

  28. 128

    #64 Anne van der Bom,
    (I try here to point out a general mistake made by large numbers of people, some of which even have PhD degrees from our most prestigious institutions. You are in high company by bringing the problem to the table.)

    Some of us feel constrained by the laws of physics when it comes to energy conversion and some of us do not. You are subject to arrest (I am joking about the arrest warrant) on reasonable suspicion that you are in the latter group due to your statement “–the much higher efficiency of electric motors compared to internal combustion engines.”

    First, it is not possible to make an efficiency comparison between a machine that relies on heat energy and a heat engine to convert that heat into mechanical or, secondarily, electrical energy and any machine that does not utilize such a heat engine.

    Conversion between kinetic (wind) and electrical energy and conversion from electrical to mechanical energy(propulsion energy to drive a car) are subject to quite mild inefficiencies and are subject to better and better design to mitigate their effect. The First Law of Thermodynamics says the process will not ever be perfect, but it often can approach 100% if that is worth the effort. Losses in electric motors are quite often around 10%.

    However it is entirely different for conversion from heat energy to electrical energy, with mechanical energy being a step along the way. Due to the limitations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the Carnot efficiency corollary, it is very difficult and expensive to get a heat engine to convert at better than 50%, and it is more common to see 33% for electric power generation at central power plants. Thus losses in this department of the world are 50% to 66%.

    There is no such thing as an electric motor that is not coupled to a heat engine. The only difference is the price of the fuel used in the heat engine. That can be a very large difference. Hydro and wind power are no exception; nature does not send us bills at least in dollars for running the heat engines that make potential and kinetic energy in these forms. Unfortunately, we have to spend a lot of money, either to build dams and wind turbines to capture this, or we have to supplement the otherwise limited amount of such ideal system output. So in the end, we have worked out fossil fuel based systems as the poor substitutes that they are.

    Re #67, (I continue in relation to your request that I explain my statement about “wasteful practice” and the “smart grid”. I did not make that clear.)
    We really can not be blamed for nature giving us 100 to 1000 years worth of coal, depending on how much dirt we are willing to scrape off these reserves. It is even not shameful that we tried originally to put the power plants that use this fuel away from population centers so as to minimize damage from the truly dirty emissions. But the whole thing is different now that we know the effect of excessive release of truly clean CO2.

    For whatever reasons, it was determined about 100 years ago to organize our electric system around central power plants, located far from population centers. It seemed reasonable to accept a 33% efficiency and do our best to throw away the remaining heat energy with a minimum of cost and environmental impact.

    Fuel was almost free for the digging and we had railroads ready to handle the freight. The railroads thus became an integral part of the system, and in the USA they now get about 50% of their revenue handling the coal.

    I am putting our electric power system on my list of Magnificent Blunders of the Modern World.

    So what is wrong with the “smart grid?” Yes, we say it is to bring wind power to places it can be used. No doubt this is part of the truth. The other part is that the improved grid will help make the central power plants look better, since it will help reduce the 7% distribution loss that also burdens the power system. But more than that, it will make it easier to install more centralized, fossil fuel burning power plants. Further, it will enhance the present sites, as wouldn’t want to have to build more railroad track to get coal further distributed so we need the grid to keep the existing sites running.

    It is possible for us to conceptualize all this being pre-empted by wind power. Very few would venture to suggest that there would be enough of that in the USA to change the fact that coal based power is the available power capacity.

    Now we have to get to economics. Maybe not so definite as the Laws of Physics, there is a law of economics that tells us that the lowest priced available resource will be the selected basis for fulfilling demand. Thus, all the very inexpensive power sources are fully utilized. Marginal response to new loads is a selection from the lowest priced options that remain available. At $1 per million BTU for coal, that is the choice. Thus, until the last coal fired capacity that can possibly be tapped into is eliminated, coal will be the response to any new plug-in electric vehicle.

    I have to add that even in California where there are legally imposed restrictions on coal use, there remains a capability to tap into outside capacity, and more subtly, there is a further law of economic displacement due to the operation of the natural gas market. In complying with restrictions on use of coal, California buys more natural gas. This puts pressure on the national system of natural gas pricing, and the resulting effect is that power operators in other states seek to avoid paying higher prices by shifting more to coal. Thus the price of natural gas remains stable, given the presence of coal as a price anchor.

    The final coffin on the nail is that there is no money lying around in the USA for this. Whatever we do will be paid for currently as a tax burden, utility rates which are effectively the same, or it will be passed down to the future generations. We have already wasted far more than we have on war and financial chicanery.

    I think there are answers that work in this scenario. They will not get serious consideration in the face of the mythical solutions on the table, these being plug-in cars and the “smart” grid, and perhaps CO2 capture and sequestration.

  29. 129
    Richard Ordway says:

    93. J Bob. “he shows the presence of a strong 57 year cycle correlated to solar activity.
    In my analysis Figure T_est_05 shows this longer wave, with about a 50+ year period.”

    A:) You can get your data analyzed by the world if you publish it to see if there are any holes in your thinking. Even an economist (McKitrick) got published, when he analyzed a mainstream climate scientist’s (Manns’s) data on the so-called hockey stick. (However, McIttrick’s information did not hold up under world wide fact checking-“Wahl and Ammann (2007 and Briffa, Keith R.; Duplessy, Jean-Claude; Joos, Fortunat; Masson-Delmotte, Valérie (2007), “Chapter 6: Paleoclimate”, Working Group I: The Physical Basis of Climate Change, IPCC). So you can publish your information too if if it is valid.

    B:) How do you know what you are talking about if you are not using published studies that have held up under long-time peer review?

  30. 130
    Hank Roberts says:

    “Anti-green economics

    Clearly, opposition to doing something about climate change has fallen back to a new position: claims that attempting to limit greenhouse gas emissions would be incredibly costly. Yet the most careful studies, like the big MIT study of Congressional proposals, find only modest costs. ….”

    ReCaptcha: “U.S. bossier”
    ___________It’s ALIVE I tell you!__________

  31. 131

    re #67

    Anne van der Bom, you provided a forthright analysis of the cost of wind power so I do not have to look further. It is $0.08 over market expectations. Oh well, that is for Denmark which might be a more orderly place to get things like this done.

    We all have our idea of what is politically possible. In the USA I think this would be difficult at best.

    Instead, to get around the objections this would raise, we work out tax credits and deductions which are clever ways to obfuscate the cost. Even so, the prognosis for providing available capacity that displaces coal available capacity is worse than poor.

  32. 132
    MikeN says:

    so how do you plan on getting China to shut down their coal plants, not to mention building more capacity than the US has?

    Why are you suggesting wind power instead of nuclear power which clearly has a larger capacity?

  33. 133
    Mark Cunnington says:

    James said:

    This is what I call the fallacy of scale, which you also see in cost calculations. ONE wind turbine or ONE solar panel is fairly cheap, and can be constructed quickly. Building the number needed to equal the output of one nuclear plant costs about as much, and takes about as long, as building the plant.

    Unless, through incentives, it becomes economical to install solar panels on your roof; then you’d have instantly opened up a workforce of 100 million homeowners who would each take care of installing solar panels on their own roof. Of course, you’d need contractors to do the work, and these could be the currently unemployed construction workers. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about all the hassles of opening up vast ares of deserts to make solar farms. The only tricky part would be supplying that many solar panels.

  34. 134
    SecularAnimist says:

    Walt Bennett wrote: “… our children’s children will be adults by the time meaningful levels of renewable energy are achieved …”

    We’ll see, but I think that’s mistaken. I am 55 and I expect that within my lifetime, wind and solar will be generating a larger share of the world’s electricity than nuclear power does today — perhaps much larger. I would call that a “meaningful” level.

  35. 135
    RichardC says:

    37 Jim says, “That is 5 Trillion dollars. I don’t think the Chinese are willing to pony up that amount of money.”

    Ask the military to build it. Cancel foreign wars and spend 5 years worth of our finest’s labour building something the nation can be proud of.

  36. 136
    ccpo says:

    Brief point on nuclear vs. renewables:

    * To my knowledge, not one privately funded nuclear plant currently in operation on the planet.

    * Cost estimates rising towards 12 billion each, or 4.8 trillion for the US alone (assuming only 400 needed. Some estimates run as high as 1k needed in the US.)

    * Time frame: decades. (I.e., too late.)

    Compare that to:
    $5,000 for every household in the US to retrofit and/or add solar and/or heat pumps and/or wind turbines in a community-based program using local materials and local people, thus pumping all that money directly into the wide economy rather than into the hands of a few large businesses. Cost: $500 billion. Time frame: a few years.

    Further, distributed energy systems are more resilient and redundant.

    See previous post for link.


  37. 137
    Theo Hopkins says:

    james @ 133:

    “The only tricky part would be supplying that many solar panels.”


  38. 138
    SecularAnimist says:

    James wrote: “You think the concrete, steel, aluminium, copper, & composites going into a wind turbine don’t have to be mined?”

    Come now, James.

    Sure, the materials for building wind turbines — and concentrating solar thermal power plants, and geothermal power plants, and photovoltaic panels — all have to be mined (or in the case of concrete, manufactured, producing significant GHG emissions).

    The same is true of the materials needed to build nuclear power plants.

    But Mark was talking about mining uranium.

    Wind and sunshine and the Earth’s internal heat don’t have to be mined.

  39. 139
    Walt Bennett says:

    Re: #134


    What I call realism others call pessimism, and I understand that is the crux of the matter. What others call realism I call optimism, perhaps even self delusion.

    I expect humans to behave much as they have behaved. I would need to see a radical change happen before I would believe it to be possible, and I don’t see how we can base policy on something we’ve never seen happen.

    Now, a paradigm shift is another thing entirely. If there were a sudden breakthrough or discovery which immediately made a practice obsolete, then there could be sudden change, but that would not be based on large numbers of people changing their minds, it would be based on large numbers of people taking advantage of an opportunity.

    My definition of “menaningful” is, first, “world-wide” (or nearly so) and second, enough to anticipate the eventuality of reducing CO2 emissions in a substantive way.

  40. 140
    SecularAnimist says:

    James wrote: “Building the number [of wind turbines or solar panels] needed to equal the output of one nuclear plant costs about as much, and takes about as long, as building the plant.”

    Do you have some actual empirical data to support those assertions? Or is it just another “rough guess” or “assumption”?

  41. 141
    walter crain says:

    j.bob (93),
    i’ll take a look at those graphs soon. thanks.

  42. 142

    Regarding solutions, now that we agree on the bad news:

    Renewables — Solar and wind are presently only a tiny fraction of power supply. They are intermittent, so they are unreliable for baseload power over 20%, and connecting them to the existing grid is an unsolved problem.

    Nuclear — Politically doomed due to Chernobyl and the waste disposal issue. Yucca Mountain has no future.

    Hydro — Out of sites.

    Natural Gas — Expensive, and best used for peak power generation and vehicle fuel. High energy density and pipelines are built already, but combustion produces CO2.

    Biofuels — Still unproven at scale. Biofuels waste energy (transportation costs, drying) and water (cf. corn ethanol). Much lower energy density than natgas and coal. Combustion of biofuels still produces CO2.

    Coal — Presently supplies more than half of the electricity in the US, and nearly all in China. Coal is the legacy of solar for the previous eons, and it has high energy density while being relatively abundant. Burning coal for electricity is the main reason the world has a CO2 problem. Post-combustion chemical CO2 capture is unproven at scale and unlikely to succeed, and underground dumping (euphemistically dubbed “sequestration” by its advocates, including the Bush DOE) is an unrealistic scheme. See the GAO report.

    So what now, given the foregoing assessment? It seems clear to me that the only way we can possibly satisfy our accelerating demand for electricity (including electric cars) is by continuing to use the fleet of pulverized coal plants. So the solution to CO2 emissions must lie in a new way for post-combustion CO2 capture out of flue gas, followed by CO2 cracking using the otherwise wasted energy of renewables. For scalable mechanical carbon capture, please consider this:

  43. 143
    Theo Hopkins says:

    Mike N @ 132:

    “so how do you plan on getting China to shut down their coal plants, not to mention building more capacity than the US has?”

    Easy. Except for the political implications in the USA (or Europe).

    Do a deal. Cut the number of coal plants in USA/EU and just get people there to use a lot less electricity.

    That life will go on as before in a post-carbon economy, just with less CO2 is probably a dream. No wonder the right in USA (mostly) and Europe (to a lesser extent), in that they represent business and commerce, are scared of AGW. A low carbon ecconomy will be a less wealthier ecconomy.

  44. 144

    #66 Nick Gotts,

    I said,
    “Technological feasibility is not meaningful without including the financial affordability factors.” – Jim Bullis

    You said,
    “How have you got on persuading the atmosphere of that profound truth?”

    You got me on that one; sounds pretty silly. Answer though is: Not very well; the developed world is not much interested in financial truth, profound or not.

    Well ok, but I am trying to get at the problem we have in the USA of credit. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but our National Charge Card is in danger of being denied the next time we buy something.

    Oh, you are talking about the real world atmosphere of gases? I just checked: Mother Nature told me that it would be ok to skip the stupid solutions to global warming, but get the heck busy working on some real stuff. She went on to explain, “If you are not carefull and throw a lot of money on things that promoters are telling you to throw money at, you won’t be able to afford real hard decisions.” She also warned against getting the public too riled up by setting up national financial disaster and that global warming could get the blame for all the wasted money of the last ten years.

    “And by the way Jim,” she said, “Why don’t you get off wasting your time on this stupid blogging?”

  45. 145

    #142 and #132

    Either we have to find a way for us and the Chinese and Indians to use a lot less energy, or nuclear has to get serious reconsideration.

    I would put serious effort into reconsidering (1)how we ride in cars and the aerodynamic possibilities that enables; (2)how we distribute our sources of electricity and the cogeneration possibilities in that, and (3)how we make wheels on our road vehicles and reduction in energy loss that that makes possible.

    Until these possibilities, and hopefully a lot of other real innovative thoughts, are worked through we should keep nuclear power at the study level. Of course, if we can get that fusion stuff working it all gets easy.

  46. 146
    Mike F says:

    #64 Where in MacKay’s book do you find the claims and the calculations which you attribute to him? I can’t find them. On page 30 in the notes he calculates the average energy used for car driving per person in the UK based on UK DfT figures for total car travel per passenger km and average UK petrol consumption as 24 kWh per person per day. He uses a figure of 40 kWh for car energy use per average affluent Brit per day, which equates to about 50 km per day per car (occupancy average about 1.7) for the next few chapters in his energy balance, but I cannot find anywhere where he then scales this up, but I may be wrong, I haven’t re-read the whole book.

    I do not see where your point about equivalence of chemical and electrical energy comes in. The figures he uses are calculated from mileage and fuel energy content for IC engined cars, so 80 kWh per 100 km for average UK car. He has a variety of figures for electric cars and says he thinks 15 kWh per 100 km is attainable (no allowance for how the electricity is generated, I assume). MacKay is pro electric car on energy grounds, apart from any others.

    Toyota claim an average consumption of 4.3 l per 100 km which is 23.3 km per litre or 2.4 km per kWh assuming 9.7 kWh per litre, not 6.

  47. 147
    SecularAnimist says:

    Wilmot McCutchen wrote: “Solar and wind are presently only a tiny fraction of power supply.”

    I remember when cell phones were zero percent of the telecommunications system, and personal computers were zero percent of data processing.

    Wilmot McCutchen wrote: “They are intermittent, so they are unreliable for baseload power over 20% …”

    It’s not true that wind and solar are unreliable for baseload power. Multiple studies in the USA and Europe have found that a diversified regional portfolio of renewables including solar, wind, geothermal and biomass can produce 24×7 baseload electricity that is at least as reliable as coal or nuclear.

    Moreover, widespread implementation of distributed, local electricity generation — especially low-cost, high-efficiency thin-film photovoltaics like those now being manufactured by Nanosolar for the municipal utility market, and other innovative PV technologies like the cylindrical PV modules being manufactured by Solyndra for commercial rooftop applications — will greatly reduce the need for large-scale, centralized baseload generation. I expect that in the future, most electricity will be generated locally, near the point of use.

    As for the 20 percent figure, I am frankly tired of hearing that the limitations of today’s ancient and dilapidated electric grid prevent us from fully exploiting the USA’s vast wind and solar energy resources. The existing grid is inadequate even to do what it is already supposed to be doing, as major regional blackouts of recent years have demonstrated. We need a new grid, a smart grid, an electricity Internet that is capable of intelligently integrating diverse, centralized and distributed, large and small, baseload and intermittent electricity consumers and providers. Work on this is ongoing, both in the public and private sectors.

    Wilmot McCutchen wrote: “… and connecting them to the existing grid is an unsolved problem.”

    Given that thousands of megawatts of wind and solar generating capacity are being connected to the grid already, it is obviously not an unsolved problem.

    Wilmot McCutchen wrote: “So what now, given the foregoing assessment? It seems clear to me that the only way we can possibly satisfy our accelerating demand for electricity (including electric cars) is by continuing to use the fleet of pulverized coal plants.”

    The assessment is wrong, so the conclusion is wrong.

  48. 148
    John N-G says:

    Re: #69 (Beyondtool)
    For a response to Joanne Nova’s argument that the evidence has changed, see my atmo.sphere blog entry on the Skeptic’s Handbook.

  49. 149
    MikeN says:

    #142 Theo, I assume that is a joke, but in case you’re not joking, what does that mean? How will reducing the number of coal plants in the US and EU have any significant impact if China is building more plants? Already they are the #1 carbon emitter.

  50. 150
    Pete Wirfs says:

    I’ve been hopeful that wave energy technologies would mature faster than they have. But these things take time.