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An open letter to Steve Levitt

Filed under: — raypierre @ 29 October 2009

Dear Mr. Levitt,

The problem of global warming is so big that solving it will require creative thinking from many disciplines. Economists have much to contribute to this effort, particularly with regard to the question of how various means of putting a price on carbon emissions may alter human behavior. Some of the lines of thinking in your first book, Freakonomics, could well have had a bearing on this issue, if brought to bear on the carbon emissions problem. I have very much enjoyed and benefited from the growing collaborations between Geosciences and the Economics department here at the University of Chicago, and had hoped someday to have the pleasure of making your acquaintance. It is more in disappointment than anger that I am writing to you now.

I am addressing this to you rather than your journalist-coauthor because one has become all too accustomed to tendentious screeds from media personalities (think Glenn Beck) with a reckless disregard for the truth. However, if it has come to pass that we can’t expect the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor (and Clark Medalist to boot) at a top-rated department of a respected university to think clearly and honestly with numbers, we are indeed in a sad way.

By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics , but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing. I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example.


As quoted by you, Mr. Myhrvold claimed, in effect, that it was pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet. Now, maybe you were dazzled by Mr Myhrvold’s brilliance, but don’t we try to teach our students to think for themselves? Let’s go through the arithmetic step by step and see how it comes out. It’s not hard.

Let’s do the thought experiment of building a solar array to generate the entire world’s present electricity consumption, and see what the extra absorption of sunlight by the array does to climate. First we need to find the electricity consumption. Just do a Google search on “World electricity consumption” and here you are:

GoogleElec

Now, that’s the total electric energy consumed during the year, and you can turn that into the rate of energy consumption (measured in Watts, just like the world was one big light bulb) by dividing kilowatt hours by the number of hours in a year, and multiplying by 1000 to convert kilowatts into watts. The answer is two trillion Watts, in round numbers. How much area of solar cells do you need to generate this? On average, about 200 Watts falls on each square meter of Earth’s surface, but you might preferentially put your cells in sunnier, clearer places, so let’s call it 250 Watts per square meter. With a 15% efficiency, which is middling for present technology the area you need is

2 trillion Watts/(.15 X 250. Watts per square meter)

or 53,333 square kilometers. That’s a square 231 kilometers on a side, or about the size of a single cell of a typical general circulation model grid box. If we put it on the globe, it looks like this:

Globe

So already you should be beginning to suspect that this is a pretty trivial part of the Earth’s surface, and maybe unlikely to have much of an effect on the overall absorbed sunlight. In fact, it’s only 0.01% of the Earth’s surface. The numbers I used to do this calculation can all be found in Wikipedia, or even in a good paperbound World Almanac.

But we should go further, and look at the actual amount of extra solar energy absorbed. As many reviewers of Superfreakonomics have noted, solar cells aren’t actually black, but that’s not the main issue. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume they absorb all the sunlight that falls on them. In my business, we call that “zero albedo” (i.e. zero reflectivity). As many commentators also noted, the albedo of real solar cells is no lower than materials like roofs that they are often placed on, so that solar cells don’t necessarily increase absorbed solar energy at all. Let’s ignore that, though. After all, you might want to put your solar cells in the desert, and you might try to cool the planet by painting your roof white. The albedo of desert sand can also be found easily by doing a Google search on “Albedo Sahara Desert,” for example. Here’s what you get:

GoogleSand

So, let’s say that sand has a 50% albedo. That means that each square meter of black solar cell absorbs an extra 125 Watts that otherwise would have been reflected by the sand (i.e. 50% of the 250 Watts per square meter of sunlight). Multiplying by the area of solar cell, we get 6.66 trillion Watts.

That 6.66 trillion Watts is the “waste heat” that is a byproduct of generating electricity by using solar cells. All means of generating electricity involve waste heat, and fossil fuels are not an exception. A typical coal-fired power plant only is around 33% efficient, so you would need to release 6 trillion Watts of heat to burn the coal to make our 2 trillion Watts of electricity. That makes the waste heat of solar cells vs. coal basically a wash, and we could stop right there, but let’s continue our exercise in thinking with numbers anyway.

Wherever it comes from, waste heat is not usually taken into account in global climate calculations for the simple reason that it is utterly trivial in comparison to the heat trapped by the carbon dioxide that is released when you burn fossil fuels to supply energy. For example, that 6 trillion Watts of waste heat from coal burning would amount to only 0.012 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface. Without even thinking very hard, you can realize that this is a tiny number compared to the heat-trapping effect of CO2. As a general point of reference, the extra heat trapped by CO2 at the point where you’ve burned enough coal to double the atmospheric CO2 concentration is about 4 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface — over 300 times the effect of the waste heat.

The “4 Watts per square meter” statistic gives us an easy point of reference because it is available from any number of easily accessible sources, such as the IPCC Technical Summary or David Archer’s basic textbook that came out of our “Global Warming for Poets” core course. Another simple way to grasp the insignificance of the waste heat effect is to turn it into a temperature change using the standard climate sensitivity of 1 degree C of warming for each 2 Watts per square meter of heat added to the energy budget of the planet (this sensitivity factor also being readily available from sources like the ones I just pointed out). That gives us a warming of 0.006 degrees C for the waste heat from coal burning, and much less for the incremental heat from switching to solar cells. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize that this is a trivial number compared to the magnitude of warming expected from a doubling of CO2.

With just a little more calculation, it’s possible to do a more precise and informative comparison. For coal-fired generation,each kilowatt-hour produced results in emissions of about a quarter kilogram of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. For our 16.83 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced each year, we then would emit 4.2 trillion kilograms of carbon, i.e. 4.2 gigatonnes each year. Unlike energy, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, and builds up year after year. It is only slowly removed by absorption into the ocean, over hundreds to thousands of years. After a hundred years, 420 gigatonnes will have been emitted, and if half that remains in the atmosphere (remember, rough estimates suffice to make the point here) the atmospheric stock of CO2 carbon will increase by 210 gigatonnes, or 30% of the pre-industrial atmospheric stock of about 700 gigatonnes of carbon. To get the heat trapped by CO2 from that amount of increase, we need to reach all the way back into middle-school math and use the awesome tool of logarithms; the number is

(4 Watts per square meter) X log2(1.3)

or 1.5 Watts per square meter. In other words, by the time a hundred years have passed, the heat trapped each year from the CO2 emitted by using coal instead of solar energy to produce electricity is 125 times the effect of the fossil fuel waste heat. And remember that the incremental waste heat from switching to solar cells is even smaller than the fossil fuel waste heat. What’s more, because each passing year sees more CO2 accumulate in the atmosphere, the heat trapping by CO2 continues to go up, while the effect of the waste heat from the fossil fuels or solar cells needed to produce a given amount of electricity stays fixed. Another way of putting it is that the climate effect from the waste heat produced by any kind of power plant is a one-off thing that you incur when you build the plant, whereas the warming effect of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel plants continues to accumulate year after year. The warming effect of the CO2 is a legacy that will continue for many centuries after the coal has run out and the ruins of the power plant are moldering away.

Note that you don’t actually have to wait a hundred years to see the benefit of switching to solar cells. The same arithmetic shows that even at the end of the very first year of operation, the CO2 emissions prevented by the solar array would have trapped 0.017 Watts per square meter if released into the atmosphere. So, at the end of the first year you already come out ahead even if you neglect the waste heat that would have been emitted by burning fossil fuels instead.

So, the bottom line here is that the heat-trapping effect of CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla in climate change. In comparison, waste heat is a trivial contribution to global warming whether the waste heat comes from solar cells or from fossil fuels. Moreover, the incremental waste heat from switching from coal to solar is an even more trivial number, even if you allow for some improvement in the efficiency of coal-fired power plants and ignore any possible improvements in the efficiency of solar cells. So: trivial,trivial trivial. Simple, isn’t it?

By the way, the issue of whether waste heat is an important factor in global warming is one of the questions most commonly asked by students who are first learning about energy budgets and climate change. So, there are no shortage of places where you can learn about this sort of thing. For example, a simple Google search on the words “Global Warming Waste Heat” turns up several pages of accurate references explaining the issue in elementary terms for beginners. Including this article from Wikipedia:

WasteHeatWiki

A more substantive (though in the end almost equally trivial) issue is the carbon emitted in the course of manufacturing solar cells, but that is not the matter at hand here. The point here is that really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you that the claim that the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense. I don’t think you would have accepted such laziness and sloppiness in a term paper from one of your students, so why do you accept it from yourself? What does the failure to do such basic thinking with numbers say about the extent to which anything you write can be trusted? How do you think it reflects on the profession of economics when a member of that profession — somebody who that profession seems to esteem highly — publicly and noisily shows that he cannot be bothered to do simple arithmetic and elementary background reading? Not even for a subject of such paramount importance as global warming.

And it’s not as if the “black solar cell” gaffe was the only bit of academic malpractice in your book: among other things, the presentation of aerosol geoengineering as a harmless and cheap quick fix for global warming ignored a great deal of accessible and readily available material on the severe risks involved, as Gavin noted in his recent post. The fault here is not that you dared to advocate geoengineering as a solution. There is a broad spectrum of opinion among scientists about the amount of aerosol geoengineering research that is justified, but very few scientists think of it as anything but a desperate last-ditch attempt, or at best a strategy to be used in extreme moderation as part of a basket of strategies dominated by emissions reductions. You owed it to your readers to present a fair picture of the consequences of geoengineering, but chose not to do so.

May I suggest that if you should happen to need some friendly help next time you take on the topic of climate change, or would like to have a chat about why aerosol geoengineering might not be a cure-all, or just need a critical but informed opponent to bounce ideas off of, you don’t have to go very far. For example…

GoogleMap

But given the way Superfreakonomics mangled Ken Caldeira’s rather nuanced views on geoengineering, let’s keep it off the record, eh?

Your colleague,

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert
Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago

807 Responses to “An open letter to Steve Levitt”

  1. 451
    PHG says:

    Mark,

    You ask how coal fired generating stations can be cheaper than wind, the short answer is discount rates and relative capital installed costs of the various technologies.

    The wind farm project I am working on will have an installed cost per MW of capacity of $2500/MW.

    If one takes into account the capacity factor, or what one can expect to generate in a typical year which
    for our project is quite good, 35%, the installed cost is more like $7145/MW.

    Installed cost for fossil fuel generating plants is typically around $1000/MW.

    Future operating and maintenance costs are discounted relative to the installed cost to arrive at a total
    project cost, for our projects we use 10%. It takes a fairly significant fuel cost to overcome the high
    initial cost of the wind turbine.

    That is not to say you can’t make money on a wind farm, it’s just the rate of return is lower than the
    equivalent fossil fueled plant. The other significant disadvantage of wind is it can’t be dispatched and
    gets payed the market electricity price when the wind is blowing, rather than being able to be run during
    peak price periods.

    Companies involved in wind farm development that I know of are using it more as a risk mitigation strategy, anticipating future carbon pricing and emission restrictions.

    The final point is proponents of various technologies will use best case scenarios in promoting their
    particular technology whether it’s geothermal or whatever. Hence blanket statements about which option is
    cheaper should be avoided since there are a variety of circumstances that will contribute to costs and not
    all will be applicable to everyone.

  2. 452
    Steve Fish says:

    Philip Machanick (#442, 5 November 2009 @ 4:53 AM:

    There was a good piece on Venus a while back on RC.

    Steve

    [Response: Here: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/03/venus-unveiled
    and here: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/04/lessons-from-venus]

  3. 453
    Mark says:

    “You ask how coal fired generating stations can be cheaper than wind, the short answer is discount rates and relative capital installed costs of the various technologies.”

    Discount rates would be: subsidy per kWh, wouldn’t it? And if it makes coal cheaper than wind than it would without, then it has to be a greater subsidy.

    “If one takes into account the capacity factor, or what one can expect to generate in a typical year which for our project is quite good, 35%, the installed cost is more like $7145/MW.”

    But isn’t the installed capacity the capacity expended? I thought so.

    “Installed cost for fossil fuel generating plants is typically around $1000/MW.”

    OK. Like the wind cost I don’t run a power station.

    “Future operating and maintenance costs are discounted relative to the installed cost to arrive at a total project cost, for our projects we use 10%. ”

    But this isn’t true. It’s an assumption, surely. A coal station needs its flue cleaned it needs careful inspection of the high-temperature sections (high pressure and high temperature water is very corrosive).

    And a PV system needs washing.

    So that 10% must be a factor just figured for planning purposes.

    “The other significant disadvantage of wind is it can’t be dispatched and
    gets payed the market electricity price when the wind is blowing, rather than being able to be run during peak price periods.”

    But that’s complaining that you can’t abuse your customers by charging more when you can. Like British Rail charges more for “peak hours” (when you have to start travelling to get to work). You can’t tell your boss that you’ll come in at 12 because the fare is cheaper. So BR have you by the short and curlies. And they squeeze.

    “Hence blanket statements about which option is cheaper should be avoided since there are a variety of circumstances that will contribute to costs and not all will be applicable to everyone.”

    I can accept that. But that “not applicable to everyone” is I feel being used for a cop-out. Nobody wants change when they’re in power: the best they can hope for is they keep power. Most likely they’ll lose some or all.

    So let someone else take the risk…

    World Leaders, huh?

  4. 454
    tharanga says:

    451, PHG: Thank you for your perspective and numbers. Your lesson at the end actually ties back to the topic of the thread: when you talk to promoters of a given idea, they’ll try to make it sound as cheap or effective as possible, just as Mhyrvold sold geoengineering to Levitt and Dubner. And yes, blanket statements should be made with caveats for local circumstances.

    Mark, various comments:
    “How? YOU DON’T HAVE TO BUY COAL TO OPERATE IT!!!”
    You’re forgetting capital costs again. The cost of buying the turbine, installing it, and paying for the financing. Just because the wind is free does not mean the energy will necessarily be cheap, nor the payback period short. See illustration by PHG, 451.

    ““Why are China creating so much wind power capability if it were so much cheaper to use fossil fuels?””

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/China/Electricity.html
    I’d have thought the graph here would speak for itself. They’re building some wind capacity, yes. But they’re building a whole lot more coal or gas. What does that tell you about the relative advantages of wind vs coal, in the absence of overriding concerns about emissions (CO2, mercury, NOx, SOx, etc)? I even quoted for you somebody in China, stating that wind was generally more expensive than coal. Installed wind capacity does eventually pay itself off, and they are a bit worried about pollution, so they’re building an impressive amount of wind capacity. But you have to compare that against the extent of the simultaneous expansion of fossil-fuel capacity. It’s the latter expansion that is so contentious at global climate negotiations.

    “Are you saying we should build CCS[-less] coal power stations rather than wind farms and solar panels because coal [without] CCS is cheaper?”

    No, I’m saying that in the absence of regulations or tax breaks, utilities will generally turn to the cheapest sources, and those are often fossil fuels. That’s the whole point of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax: it would make fossil fuels more expensive, thereby providing incentives for both conservation and alternatives.

  5. 455
    Rod B says:

    Lynn V. (405), let’s see… Am I an elderly (that’s ‘really old guy’ for the folks in SW Texas ;-) ) AGW skeptic in order to maintain my self esteem, or maybe because I wish to avoid death, or maybe I want my mutual funds to maintain their value??? Lynn, get out of the psychological murk — as curiously interesting that it might be.

  6. 456
    tharanga says:

    Mark, why are you being abusive towards somebody who works on wind? Discount rate has absolutely nothing to do with government subsidy; please just review how cash flow calculations are done in order to assess investment projects. Also, pricing based on supply and demand isn’t abusive; it’s perfectly natural. If your turbine is generating power at off-peak times when your added capacity isn’t needed, then you shouldn’t expect to get paid much for it.

  7. 457
    PHG says:

    Mark,

    “Discount rates would be: subsidy per kWh, wouldn’t it? And if it makes coal cheaper than wind than it would without, then it has to be a greater subsidy.”

    No, discount rate is not a subsidy, it is a factor in determining the present value of a series of future
    payments. It is used in determining project economics and is tied to interest rates, ie: a risk free return
    on the capital you are investing in the project.

    “But isn’t the installed capacity the capacity expended? I thought so.”

    Installed capacity is the nameplate rating on the wind turbines multiplied by the nunber of turbines.
    Capacity factor is a ratio of the expected average output of the turbines divided by the installed capacity
    in a typical year.

    “But this isn’t true. It’s an assumption, surely. A coal station needs its flue cleaned it needs careful inspection of the high-temperature sections (high pressure and high temperature water is very corrosive).”

    As explained above, discount factor is not an assumption but based on actual cost of money. All costs are included in operating and maintenance costs for projects.

    “So that 10% must be a factor just figured for planning purposes.”

    Somewhat, it’s used in evaluating the relative merits of various options. It’s pretty standard
    project economics.

    “But that’s complaining that you can’t abuse your customers by charging more when you can. Like British Rail charges more for “peak hours” (when you have to start travelling to get to work). You can’t tell your boss that you’ll come in at 12 because the fare is cheaper. So BR have you by the short and curlies. And they squeeze.”

    I don’t understand what point you are making here. In the deregulated electricity market a wind turbine
    output varies, hence the expected price you will receive will be lower than a generator which can be
    brought online during peak periods. It has nothing to do with squeezing someone but is related to the way
    the market works. That also needs to be taken into account for wind farms.

    “I can accept that. But that “not applicable to everyone” is I feel being used for a cop-out. Nobody wants change when they’re in power: the best they can hope for is they keep power. Most likely they’ll lose some or all.”

    My only point was that you need to take care in evaluating per kw cost figures as provided by industry sources, for example geothermal proponents will often use installed cost figures from projects which inherently have the lowest costs due to availability and characteristic of a geothermal resource which may not be directly applicable to your project. The same would apply to virtually all types of generation although fossil fueled plants have a longer track record and hence more plants to average out the costs.

    “So let someone else take the risk…

    World Leaders, huh?”

    My intent was to provide a brief overview of why wind generation is in general, more expensive than coal
    fired plants with the present state of fuel costs and relative capital costs not get into political discusssions.

  8. 458
    David N says:

    [Response to 9: That’s another arithmetic assignment then. How much Drano
    do you have to dump into the ocean? What fraction of the world’s shipping
    is that? How much CO2 do you emit schlepping that around? What does it
    add to the costs of geoengineering? What if you do it with limestone
    instead of Drano? –raypierre]

    I didn’t see that anyone had done the assignment, so I gave it a shot.
    (I cheated and used the 20Gtons number used in #9, rather than doing the
    chemistry myself :)
    According to the World Shipping Council, the total world shipping
    capacity is: 13.5 million TEU.
    I TEU = 1 Twenty-foot Equivelant Unit = (20 ft x 8 ft x 8.5 ft)
    =1360 ft^3. (Wikipedia :)
    Density of limestone is ~120 lbs/ft^3 (www.natural-stone.com)
    So 20 Gtons/year = 320 Gft^3/year = 0.25 GTEU/year.
    This is 17 x the world shipping capacity.
    Won’t work.

    (CHECK: According to MarineBiz TV [referencing the UNCTAD] world shipping
    capacity is about 1.12 Gtons. So 20 GTons is about 18 x world capacity)
    I timed myself. It took 8 minutes (i.e., this could have been done while
    cooling one’s heels in the green room)

  9. 459
    Mark says:

    “In the deregulated electricity market a wind turbine output varies, hence the expected price you will receive will be lower than a generator which can be brought online during peak periods.”

    Doesn’t that mean it isn’t running all the time? Ergo the installed cost is higher.

    Just wanted to point out that.

    The rest fine.

  10. 460
    Mitch Golden says:

    Raypierre, regarding the term “Waste Heat”:

    I think the way the term is being used here is not the standard one used by physicists. If I have a heat engine, such as a coal fired plant, and it is 1/3 efficient, then to generate 2 units of electricity I have to use 6 units of input heat, and the remaining 4 units is “waste heat”.

    Now it is true that the electricity will go off somewhere and be used to do something, and by-and-large what happens is that it gets ultimately converted to heat. So the total warming of the environment is the total heat generated. I say by-and-large because it could do other things, such as be converted to light or sent into space as radio waves. That’s presumably a small part of what happens to the electricity, so the ultimate waste heat will match your calculation, even if it’s worded a bit differently.

    (BTW, if the albedo of sand is 50%, don’t you also have to take into account the absorbency of the atmosphere in the visible? If the atmosphere grabs some of the light on the way back, it will increase the effective albedo. Clouds would have this effect.)

    Prof. Levitt:

    I have to say that I was disappointed in the tone of the Myhrvold article to which you linked. If he (or you) believe that someone is making incorrect arguments, then you don’t write 1/2 your article decrying “politicization” in general, you just correct him with facts. So far as I can tell this is the opposite of what Myhrvold does. In fact, Myhrvold fails to mention that it takes energy to build coal (or nuclear) plants as well, and this should be factored into the calculation. We are on the hook for some CO2 emission for the creation of power plants no matter what kind we choose to build. (And we have no choice to build them, because the ones we have won’t last forever even if we wanted them to.) If Myhrvold does a proper life-cycle calculation he can prove Romm (or Raypierre) wrong without saying anything further, the need for invective (or even for decrying invective) is eliminated.

    I for one would be very interested in seeing a reference to the studies on which these assertions are based.

  11. 461
    Brian Brademeyer says:

    458 David N

    Capacity in GTons is not equal to GTon/yr. You need some estimate of “turnaround time”, or trips/ship-year.

  12. 462
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Okay, on to sociocultural factors that could leave neo-clasical economic considerations in the dust. (BTW, the thing about the elderly and GW was brought up by another person thru a link, and I only tried to address it best I could…I’m also a senior :) ).

    I’ve been waiting and hoping for something in anthropolgy called a REVITALIZATION MOVEMENT (“social movement” in sociology), in which masses of people go thru “mazeway resynthesis” (get a new vision of a better world, more in line with reality), and construct a more satisfying culture. I’m hoping people will in this fashion jump on the environmental bandwagon, become part of this great vision for a better future, and dig in mitigating AGW. Other such revitalization movements include the conversion religions; the 60s & 70s civil rights, environmental, and feminist movements; the hippie movement; revolutions; etc. Such movements can happen very rapidly, within months or a few years. I think the internet can help such movements spread even further and faster.

    It does seem as if environmentalism is picking up in recent years, but there are lots of forces against it. For one thing, big biz has become much more savvy in confronting, coopting, astroturfing, and diverting, etc since Rachel Carsons broad-sided them in the 60s with SILENT SPRING. Then there are the economic woes, which I think are causing a retrenchment in environmentalism; people seem to be more magnimous in their concerns for others, future generations, and God’s good creation when there’s abundant surplus in the economy and in people’s pocketbooks (so even increasing inequalities in a strong surplus economy could act against environmentalism).

    But I hadn’t even considered that this revitalization movement sword cuts both ways. Yesterday the news mentioned how few educated urban elites there were in Afghanistan, compared to most being rural, traditional folks. I thought about UNSCIENTIFIC (anti-scientific) AMERICA, and the recent upwelling of the masses against health care, etc (in part orchestrated or at least triggered by bigbiz/politico/media influences). I thought of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge — it was an anti-intellectual, anti-science revitalization movement; they killed people who wore glasses. I’m not saying things would get as bad as that in America….certainly not in the near future. But it is troubling, the rise of the anti-science folks, almost into a national movement. Right now there is some modicum of respect for science, so they promote bogus science, or present their falsehoods and fears in the cloaking of science. And they also seem to make it appear moral and righteous by using the cloak of religion, as well. I’m not saying they actually know the scientific facts, but refuse to admit them; I’m sure they honestly believe Limbaugh (who said Andy Revkin should kill himself, if he believes in AGW) and others, and seem to be champing at the bit to follow. It’s sort of scary, and I thought Halloween was over.

    These are just some random thoughts & I hope I’m totally off track on this. Just waiting for everyone to prove me wrong.

  13. 463
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 453, etc. Mark

    See my 436 – from 457 PHG, it seems my point about the cost of capital is exactly what 451 PHG was refering to regarding discount rates. 456 tharanga has a good point.

    “But that’s complaining that you can’t abuse your customers by charging more when you can. Like British Rail charges more for “peak hours” (when you have to start travelling to get to work). You can’t tell your boss that you’ll come in at 12 because the fare is cheaper. So BR have you by the” [not in front of the kid!] “And they squeeze.”

    The squeezing is more a problem of monopolies and negotiating power and entrenched habits (in the case of rigid work schedules based on mutually-reinforcing feedback between how professional people act and how they are expected to act – which I like to compare to sexual selection in biological evolution).

    Which is not to say such issues don’t deserve attention. But we can set them and other things aside and consider an idealized free market, and note that there are good reasons for supply and demand and temporal price variations. Considering the case of dispatchable power, if more power is needed at certain times, this requires greater generating capacity (or transmission from a region with complementary variations in demand – in which case the rest of this refers to the costs of the capacity of transmission infrastructure). But the greater generating capacity is not used at all times; hence the capacity-proportional costs are not payed back as quickly as they would be if there were no time variation in demand. Thus power used at peak times is more expensive. It has to be in order to make up for the greater capacity costs per unit energy supply, so as to give the incentive to make the investment to provide that power. And note that this provides incentive for demand to smooth itself over time. In the case of variable power sources (solar, wind), the incentives provided by supply and demand price determination are to 1. invest enough capacity to better meet peak usage 2. invest in energy sources that are better matched to the timing of usage, so as to reduce the costs of 1. (optimum reached when the net marginal benifit is zero); 3. invest in transmission and storage so as to reduce the costs of 1 and 2 (optimum reached when etc.), 4. incentive to energy users to adjust their schedules to reduce the costs of all of the above (optimum reached when etc.), Etc.

    PHG –
    “As explained above, discount factor is not an assumption but based on actual cost of money. All costs are included in operating and maintenance costs for projects.”

    Mark – in case it helps, since money itself is a bit abstract, remember it is used to represent something – when money is diverted from ____ and invested in a project, it pulls demand for resources along with it.

    Consider, for example, wheat production and use. The more grains of wheat that are saved from one harvest season, the more (within other limitations, of course – this is just a simple illustration) the potential and likely supply of wheat at a later time. But this comes at a cost; those seeds are invested at the expense of a loss of food supply at that time. The value of supplies at different times must be weighed against each other – the expected future demand, via the motivation to invest in future supply, must compete with the present demand. Etc.

  14. 464
    Jim Galasyn says:

    David, thanks for the calculation. I would imagine there’s a minimum of shipping involved in the Cquestrate plan. I envision long conveyor belts from the Nullarbor Plain that dump gigatons of CaO directly into the Great Australian Bight.

    One of the questions to be answered with this idea is how well the Bight water mixes with the rest of the Southern Ocean.

  15. 465
    David B. Benson says:

    Brian Brademeyer (460) — Yes. Assuming a very lengthy 3 week turnaround time, that’s 17.3 trips/year.

  16. 466
    David N says:


    Capacity in GTons is not equal to GTon/yr. You need some estimate of “turnaround time”, or trips/ship-year.

    Good point – what my little calc means is that each ship needs to make a trip to and from Dover every three weeks (52/17 = 3).
    So I guess it’s possible….

  17. 467
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: pouring base into the oceans

    I love the idea of pouring base into the oceans and trusting the currents to dilute it and get it uniformly mixed. And that it will work exactly as dreamed, that it won’t kill more than it helps.

    Well, I don’t really love it. It terrifies me that a group who don’t have our interests at heart — carbon extraction plutocrats — might be able to bull something like this into practice.

    Yeats’s line that “The worst are full of passionate intensity” is just as valid as it has ever been.

  18. 468

    In 266, Rene wrote:

    Mark (230)
    To clarify let me repeat the question not addressed by your message 200:
    – what word would *you* then recommend to describe someone who questions or doubts that AGW is a serious problem ?

    Here is the problem. It is a common one. In the US, the church called “Christian Science” has co-opted the otherwise perfectly good term “Christian Scientist” as a descriptor of a person who happens to be both. And the group at ICR co-opted the term “Craetionist,” so that one who beleives in purpose for the universe rather than accident can’t use that term.

    In a similar way, the two terms “Denialist” and “Skeptic” have come to mean, at least on this site, the same thing. The terms “wilfully ignorant” and “selectively credulous” have been suggested as synonyms.

    Those words have been selected by the group — they are not going to change their definition. But there is still another category of poster — that is the person, be he scientist of layperson, who really has not paid all that much attention to the IPCC reports to date. And, face it, most people fall into that category. A year ago that could describe me — I saw no reason to doubt the IPCC reports, but I really had not looked into them at all deeply. Other projects were more important.

    When I did do “heavy lifting,” it became evident that the IPCC is good science and that AGW is almost certainly true. It took awhile; it is not a two week study!

    Now consider someone uneducated in the AGW science looking at this site, and the posts in particular. If he is any kind of thinking person, he will naturally begin asking questions — why is this so? How do you know this? and in many cases will cite a “fact” which has been around awhile and has been refutted — BUT HE DOES NOT KNOW THAT!

    A simple “no, that fact is incorrect,” would probably suffice; a suggestion for a site to visit to learn more might also be useful. But some here take glee in immediately attacking the questioner, and that just turns him off.

    We need a new name for ssuch a person. Any suggestions?

  19. 469
    George H. says:

    David N @ 458:

    I suspect the volumes involved and the nature of the product make dry bulk carriers the more likely option. World shipping capacity there is 358m deadweight tons.

    Assuming you can unload a Cape Size bulk carrier at sea, you would need about 60 trips for each ship in the world fleet.

    Probably a bit high whether you use containers or bulk carriers.

    Kim Stanley Robinson envisages something similar in Fifty Degrees Below Zero.

  20. 470
    Hank Roberts says:

    > We need a new name for ssuch a person. Any suggestions?

    This should not surprise you:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=what+do+you+call+people+who+ask+for+help+before+reading+the+FAQ%3F

  21. 471
    Arthur Lovell says:

    This shows that it isn’t all that hard to make good envelope-back calculations about renewable energy and climate. Some material discussed here is also covered in a similarly entertaining way in David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air”, which can be read freely at withouthotair.com. It looks at how consumption might be matched with potential renewable resource, using the example of the UK, wry humour and approachable calculations, and suggests how difficult some choices may be in the trend to zero-carbon economies.

  22. 472
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Jeffery, I’m right there with you, but merely proposing that this is the least terrifying of the geo-engineering options.

  23. 473
    Chief Marshall says:

    467 I don’t really know what word(s) could be used to describe the people who arouse themselves by “immediately attacking the questioner”. Some presumably have dug out the sheriff badge from the costume box in the attic and have appointed themselves as a thread sheriff. Others presumably just love to shoot from the hip without wearing any badge. Reminds me of a Monty Python (or similar) skit in which an insane taxi driver put a sticker on the taxi door for each pedestrian that was taken out.

    George Monbiot on his website http://www.monbiot.com has put a very interesting article about why people find the topic so difficult. It is about the psychological screening that people create when facing a situation that is potentially terminal. It is worth reading and thinking about. Hopefully the sheriffs will put their badges away.

  24. 474
    Steve says:

    What was the topic again? If anyone wants to talk about solar panels, I’m still lurking.

    Sorry, I don’t feel like discussing philosophy, economic theory and intellectual property rights. Not on this thread, anyway.

  25. 475
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #467, I would call such people SKEPTICS, as long as they are sincerely striving to learn the truth, and have some respect for what working scientists who publish in peer-review journals have to say.

    I don’t think there are any (or not many) SKEPTICS in among bonafide climate scientists anymore — only layperson skeptics who have not read up on the science very much.

    DENIALISTS might be defined as people who actually know or highly suspect AGW is happening and its effects could be dangerous, but because they are tied into some other interests — like the fossil fuel industry — in some direct or indirect way, they refuse to admit AGW is happening. This term, however, is often used for those who sincerely deny AGW is happening, based on bogus science, which they perceive as correct. For this latter category, I would use:

    CONTRARIANS: These would be people who refuse to believe in AGW no matter how much evidence, science (observations, theory, principles, laws) there are to support AGW. I think Rush Limbaugh perhaps gets some support from fossil fuels or other sources that want to promote denialism, but I would consider him a contrarian.

  26. 476
    Hank Roberts says:

    > We need a new name for ssuch a person. Any suggestions?

    Well, let’s see.

    Can’t do numbers: innumerate
    Can’t do reading: illiterate

    What’s the word for not being able to use reference tools?

    Irreferent?

  27. 477
    David Miller says:

    Jim in 471 says:

    merely proposing that this is the least terrifying of the geo-engineering options.

    Proper distribution of a base in the ocean may be less terrifying than running the sulfur hosepipe to the stratosphere, but you need some more imagination, I think.

    An “active” alternative that makes more sense is grinding and distributing olivine waste. That appears to be about as effective as calcining the oceans but to have many fewer potential side effects.

    That said, I believe that land-use changes are by far the lowest cost and most effective means of drawing additional carbon out of the atmosphere. Charring crop wastes and adding them back to the soil sequesters the carbon for centuries AND improves the soil by increasing the cation exchange capacity (less fertilizer required, less runoff of nutrients). Growing cover crops on agricultural soil increases root mass and soil carbon content; both help reduce water requirements. No-till methods lower the fuel required to grow a hectare of crops and reduces CO2 emissions of the soil itself.

    If we charred the crop wastes and sequestered only a ton of carbon per hectare, and had a net ton increase due to increased organic matter we would draw down 3 gigatons of carbon per year (1.5 billion hectares of cropland).

    Building soil fertility seems far less likely to have unintended negative consequences compared to the other geo-engineering schemes we’ve all discussed. And in the coming decades being able to grow more food on the fixed amount of farmland seems like a good thing too.

  28. 478

    Burgy:

    > We need a new name for such a person. Any suggestions?

    Why? What’s wrong with ‘uninformed’?

    It’s not a shame to be uninformed. In fact, most of us are uninformed on most things. Life is short. What is shameful, is to loudly proclaim strong opinions on the matters of fact one is uninformed on. For those folks we indeed need a new word.

  29. 479
    EL says:

    Tegiri Nenashi Says

    Lynn, yes, older people are more skeptical. I’ve heard this GW story in early 80s. In the early 90s AGW was part of Civization game. In the 2000s the same story (and lack of supporting facts) looks tiresome.
    Regarding younger people: Iranian students captured the US embassy in infamous protest against evil americans, and today they protest against their government failing to establish normal relationship with the rest of the world (including americans). It looks like younger people like to protest no matter the cause.

    Two thousand and four hundred years ago, Aristophanes was doing comedic plays about scientists. In one skit, Aristophanes used Socrates as an example scientist. Socrates was sitting in a chair that was connected with a rope and pulley. Men on the stage would lift the chair by rope, and the announcer would declare that Socrates was being lifted higher so that he could think of higher things. In the comedy, Socrates is portrayed as a scientists who traded the gods like Zeus for silly scientific ideas.

    People have been doubting scientists and mathematicians for thousands of years. Once laymen doubted scientific claims that the world was round or the earth revolved around the sun, and now they doubt global warming among other things. If Gavin, Mike, Ray, or others at real climate ever feel down about the global warming effort, they can drawl comfort in knowing that they are taking a part in a very old struggle.

    You are simply spouting the same old laborious nonsense that scientists have had to listen to for thousands of years. You overestimate your knowledge and intellectual abilities, and assume that people are unable to learn something outside of your scope. Most likely, you sat in math and science classes while growing up and said, “What will I ever need this for?” and assumed that it is useless. Even though you are presented with a mountain of evidence by the scientific community, you lack the intellectual tools required to comprehend it.

    And for your information, Global Warming was put forward by a Swedish scientists in 1896. After one hundred years of scientific discoveries, scientists are now confident enough to bring it to the public.

  30. 480
    Mark says:

    “Charring crop wastes and adding them back to the soil sequesters the carbon for centuries AND improves the soil by increasing the cation exchange capacity (less fertilizer required, less runoff of nutrients).”

    I’ve heard this before.

    Do you have anything on how carbon sequestered in the active upper layer of the soil can both exist for centuries (though my previous interlocutor on this said thousands of years) AND manage to actively participate in the health of the soil at the same time?

    The previous person didn’t manage to come up with anything other than to repeat it was so.

    For preference, this should be fairly old discussions so that it isn’t tainted by being a back-door-geoengineering paper I won’t be able to go “yeah, but is this right?”.

  31. 481
    Mark says:

    “What’s the word for not being able to use reference tools?”

    A tool?

    In Soviet Russia, tools use YOU!

  32. 482
    Mark says:

    “I would call such people SKEPTICS, as long as they are sincerely striving to learn the truth, and have some respect for what working scientists who publish in peer-review journals have to say.”

    But that isn’t skepticism. They don’t know what it is, so how can they be skeptical of it?

    After they have learned what AGW is, then they can be skeptical or accepting or undecided (which isn’t the same as skeptical).

    But whilst learning, skeptic isn’t it.

    Noob is the current nomenclature, but neophyte or unlearned (with the accent over the e so it sounds more posh) would mean the same thing.

    How can you have an opinion based on nothing?

    If you insist you have an opinion despite knowing nothing, then that’s denialism again.

  33. 483
    Mark says:

    “What was the topic again? If anyone wants to talk about solar panels, I’m still lurking.”

    1) you aren’t lurking if you’re posting

    2) this thread isn’t about solar panels either: “an open letter to steve levitt”

  34. 484

    Raypierre, you usually get stuff right but I am mystified about your waste heat argument. You say

    6.66 trillion Watts is the “waste heat” that is a byproduct of generating electricity by using solar cells. All means of generating electricity involve waste heat, and fossil fuels are not an exception. A typical coal-fired power plant only is around 33% efficient, so you would need to release 6 trillion Watts of heat to burn the coal to make our 2 trillion Watts of electricity

    It seems clear to me that you are equating here the total energy involved in fossil fuel generation to only the “extra” heat from a very pessimistic estimate of the absorption of photovoltaics. The correct figure for photovoltaics, by your argument that all electricity eventually ends up as waste heat, should be 8 TW.

    In any case as you demonstrate this is trivial compared with the Earth’s total energy budget, and a more realistic measure of the heat absorption of photovoltaics would narrow the numbers.

  35. 485
    Mark says:

    “what word would *you* then recommend to describe someone who questions or doubts that AGW is a serious problem ?”

    Which is it:

    Questions

    or

    Doubts

    ?

    With the amount of evidence FOR it being a serious problem (and I note now that it is no longer “doubt whether there is AGW” but has shifted again without fanfare or apology to “doubt whether there is serious consequences for AGW”) one who still doubts is denying the evidence.

    If one questions, then it depends on what the question is, doesn’t it. If the question is really a leading question leading to “I doubt there is any serious consequences to AGW” then you’re back in doubt again and a denialist.

    Someone who says “How will hurricanes act under AGW?” is questioning AGW but not doubting it.

    Someone who says “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how hurricanes act under AGW” is spreading doubt and we’re back to doubt again.

  36. 486

    Arthur, this is not the first time you have advertised that book on RealClimate. The same problems we pointed out with it last time are still there. Were you thinking we would have forgotten by now?

  37. 487
    Mark says:

    “In a similar way, the two terms “Denialist” and “Skeptic” have come to mean, at least on this site, the same thing. ”

    On this site?

    No.

    You’ll only hear people denying AGW is a problem saying “I’m not a denier, I’m just skeptical”. And you hear it on EVERY SITE where AGW is discussed.

    So your proposition has a honking big hole right in the middle.

    I now doubt that you are legitimate and are instead masquerading as a “moderate” in order to keep the doubt alive.

    “at least on this site” has killed your reputation as a thinking moderate.

  38. 488

    It strikes me that we might duplicate the natural course of events when the ocean becomes less acidic by dumping the base, not into the ocean, but into the world’s rivers.

  39. 489
    Mark says:

    “Mark – in case it helps, since money itself is a bit abstract,”

    It doesn’t help. Money has always been a promise of trade and when it stopped being spent and started being mostly hoarded it stopped being even that.

    Thanks for trying though.

  40. 490
    Mark says:

    PHG, please check out this and let me know whether your figures are old build or new.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power#Growth_and_cost_trends

    Where they have

    Cost per unit of energy produced was estimated in 2006 to be comparable to the cost of new generating capacity in the US for coal and natural gas: wind cost was estimated at $55.80 per MWh, coal at $53.10/MWh and natural gas at $52.50.

    And although it says other reports show it to be higher, fossil fuels will get more expensive as turbines (the only cost is a sunk cost for the lifetime of a turbine) get cheaper.

    Ta.

  41. 491
    Nick O. says:

    # 475 Lynn Vincentnathan.

    Quite like your distinctions between sceptics, denialists and contrarians. Would Christopher Booker (of the S.T. in the U.K.) be a contrarian on that basis?

    Also, should there not also be another category, of those people who – generally out of a well-meaning adherence to free speech and fair debate – hold that giving equal weight to the publicity of all arguments is more important than the evidential basis of those arguments?

    Thus, my quibble with Clive James’s talk on the BBC just recently, in which he said in his view not enough had been heard of the arguments against AGW, and that there should be more scepticism. Would “POLEMICIST” or maybe “CONTROVERSIALIST” be appropriate here? My thinking is that to these people, and again however well meaning their intentions, the mere existence of a counter-argument, however feeble it appears to be scientifically, is reason to give it and its proponents equality of air time, publication and so on.

    Any thoughts, anyone?

  42. 492
    Mark says:

    PHG I think your figures are old because a bit of looking around seems to suggest build-out cost alone for wind is about $1.30-$1.50 per watt and a new high efficiency coal power station costs about $1.33 per watt

    (the wind power from wiki, the coal power station from http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=75824186023 though there they have wind at $1 per watt)

    This is quite a bit less than your $2.50 per watt for wind.

    Solar’s advantage is that it can be placed somewhere practially free and near the sink for energy needs.

    From that facebook site its conclusion seems to be appropriate: more wind power for baseload and gas for peak reaping of their customers. Gas isn’t on often so it’s build-out cost is high per delivered watt but most of its cost is calculated to be the fuel: gas.

    And note peak reaping of your customer will mean more build-out cost, but obviously not to the extent of allowing for becalmed power generation.

    Coal can’t be used for peak because it needs time to get to speed (I would suppose this is less true for smaller coal generators but the waste of site land and reduced efficiency of the building to house a smaller generator would make it cost more per MW anyway).

  43. 493
    PHG says:

    Mark,

    Further to the wind power cost, manufacturer’s of wind turbines do not provide a blanket pricing for wind
    turbines, they take your wind information taken from met towers over a several year period and do a revenue
    projection based on their economic model for the electrical system you are connecting to.

    They then price the turbine with the objective to provide an acceptable rate of return for the developer as
    well as provide them with an acceptable price for the turbine.

    With the economic downturn and the resulting low electricity prices they are also considering lower initial\
    capital prices in exchange for a share of the projected increase in revenue as the electricity price and
    economy recovers.

    Since our particular project has a very high projected capacity factor we are in essence paying more than
    average for the turbines. The project hasn’t been built as yet due to transmission line constraints.

    I realize this sounds a bit odd, but it does maximize the overall wind power potential by lowering the
    price for less than optimal sites and increasing the cost for high quality sites.

    Also, keep in mind that although the installed cost we are projecting is around the $2500/MW it does not
    include the $900 million in additional tranmission capacity which is required to upgrade the system. The
    upgrade will allow the connection of up to 700 MW of wind power capacity in the area and will be rolled
    into the tranmission line tariff that will be payed for by all consumers but will not show up in average
    figures for wind power installations.

  44. 494
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #491, Nick & “Also, should there not also be another category, of those people who – generally out of a well-meaning adherence to free speech and fair debate – hold that giving equal weight to the publicity of all arguments is more important than the evidential basis of those arguments?”

    These would be called JOURNALISTS (or NOT-SCIENTISTS) :)

    But they might be denialists, if they are using the journalistic “pro-con” format to lead people away from scientifically well-established facts, like Ted Koppel did back in 1995 in his “Is Science for Sale” NIGHTLINE show. He had a couple of climate scientists debating contrarians, with the upshot….didn’t look like GW was real. Texaco was the sponsor, so I wrote to Ted that perhaps science wasn’t for sale, but the media sure were.

  45. 495
    Greg Simpson says:

    PHG, your $2500/MW number seems really low. As in, should that be per kW?

  46. 496
    PHG says:

    Greg,

    “PHG, your $2500/MW number seems really low. As in, should that be per kW?”

    Whoops, you are correct. My apologies.

    Thank-you.

  47. 497

    I had written in #487:“In a similar way, the two terms “Denialist” and “Skeptic” have come to mean, at least on this site, the same thing. ”

    Mark wrote: “On this site? No.”

    I am puzzled by this comment. Perhaps I have missed something. It does seem to me that the two words are used synonymously. If they differ, how would you differentiate between them?

    Mark continued: “You’ll only hear people denying AGW is a problem saying “I’m not a denier, I’m just skeptical”. And you hear it on EVERY SITE where AGW is discussed.”

    I suspect this might be true — although I have hardly visited every site and it seems improbable that you have had the time to do so. But this comment is off point. I want to focus on RealClimate.org only.

    Mark continued: “So your proposition has a honking big hole right in the middle.”

    I did use the words “on this site, at least,” so I politely dissent.

    Mark continued: “I now doubt that you are legitimate and are instead masquerading as a “moderate” in order to keep the doubt alive.”

    It is a matter of indifference to me what opinion you have of me. You earlier accused me of not hollering at the denialists — but this is hardly true; I have done so on a number of occasions, both here and in the articles I have written for a Colorado newspaper.

    Mark continued: “”at least on this site” has killed your reputation as a thinking moderate.”

    I have no idea why you would write this. I think I think, and I am somewhat of a moderate politically, and my “reputation on this site” is clearly not yours to pass judgement upon.

    MArk — very very few people have the depth of knowledge on AGW that either you or I have, and we have both concluded that the scientific case presented by the IPCC is overwhelming. We have also, independently, come to the obvious conclusion that much of the denialist diatribes against AGW are without merit. I haste to say “most,” for nobody has read all of them.

    Here is my concern: A recent Pew poll shows the percentage of Americans who thing AGW is a reality has dropped a lot in the past year. Politicians of all parties listen to their constituents, so it is of utmost importance to gain as many adherents as possible.

    I see civility and tolerance as key to that effort. You see sarcasm and insults as key. On this, we must agree to disagree.

  48. 498
    Hank Roberts says:

    Arguing definitions is an great way to avoid discussing the topic, ya know.
    Though you can go on doing it endlessly with those who like doing that.

    Whatever label you put on the authors of the book, the _content_ is mostly unsupported assertions or missing information needed for it to be understood.

  49. 499
    Mark says:

    PHG if your supplier is doing that, shop around. This IS a free market you know. And the turbines from 10 years ago are not as efficient or as effective as the ones rolling off production lines today.

  50. 500
    Mark says:

    Nick O “My thinking is that to these people, and again however well meaning their intentions, the mere existence of a counter-argument, however feeble it appears to be scientifically, is reason to give it and its proponents equality of air time, publication and so on.”

    It’s more lazy journalism.

    You can either do the groundwork, find out that the evidence is concentrated on the AGW side and be shouted down as “biased to the AGW religion, you eco-freak!” (and note to Burgy, how come that has never kicked someone over from denialism? All that enciro-fascist/enviro-nazi/eco-freak insults and so on? Hmm?) or you can pick up one person pro-AGW and one person anti-AGW and leave it like that.

    Which do you think has the least work?

    James is just trying to get the “I’m a Free Thinker!” badge by bucking the trend. But you’ll never see him “buck the trend” on 90% tax for the earners over 80K. He wants to be seen as a “free thinker” not a “nut” (though he won’t be able to explain the difference).