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Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong

Filed under: — gavin @ 18 October 2009

Many commentators have already pointed out dozens of misquotes, misrepresentations and mistakes in the ‘Global Cooling’ chapter of the new book SuperFreakonomics by Ste[ph|v]ens Levitt and Dubner (see Joe Romm (parts I, II, III, IV, Stoat, Deltoid, UCS and Paul Krugman for details. Michael Tobis has a good piece on the difference between adaptation and geo-engineering). Unfortunately, Amazon has now turned off the ‘search inside’ function for this book, but you can read the relevant chapter for yourself here (via Brad DeLong). However, instead of simply listing errors already found by others, I’ll focus on why this chapter was possibly written in the first place. (For some background on geo-engineering, read our previous pieces: Climate Change methadone? and Geo-engineering in vogue, Also the Atlantic Monthly “Re-Engineering the Earth” article had a lot of quotes from our own Raypierre).

Paul Krugman probably has the main issue right:

…it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous.


Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counter-intuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

Levitt was on NPR at the weekend discussing this chapter (though not defending himself against any of the criticisms leveled above). He made the following two points which I think go to the heart of his thinking on this issue: “Why would anyone be against a cheap fix?” and “No problem has ever been solved by changing human behaviour” (possibly not exact quotes, but close enough). He also alluded to the switch over from horse-driven transport to internal combustion engines a hundred years ago as an example of a ‘cheap technological fix’ to the horse manure problem. I deal with each of these points in turn.

Is geo-engineering cheap?

The geo-engineering option that is being talked about here is the addition of SO2 to the stratosphere where it oxidises to SO4 (sulphate) aerosols which, since they are reflective, reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. The zeroth order demonstration of this possibility is shown by the response of the climate to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 which caused a maximum 0.5ºC cooling a year or so later. Under business-as-usual scenarios, the radiative forcing we can expect from increasing CO2 by the end of the century are on the order of 4 to 8 W/m2 – requiring the equivalent to one to two Pinatubo’s every year if this kind of geo-engineering was the only response. And of course, you couldn’t stop until CO2 levels came back down (hundreds, if not thousands of years later) without hugely disruptive and rapid temperature rises. As Deltoid neatly puts it: “What could possibly go wrong?”.

The answer is plenty. Alan Robock discussed some of the issues here the last time this came up (umm… weeks ago). The basic issues over and above the costs of delivering the SO2 to the stratosphere are that a) once started you can’t stop without much more serious consequences so you are setting up a multi-centennial commitment to continually increasing spending (of course, if you want to stop because of huge disruption that geo-engineering might be causing, then you are pretty much toast), b) there would be a huge need for increased monitoring from the ground and space, c) who would be responsible for any unanticipated or anticipated side effects and how much would that cost?, and d) who decides when, where and how much this is used. For point ‘d’, consider how difficult it is now to come up with an international agreement on reducing emissions and then ponder the additional issues involved if India or China are concerned that geo-engineering will cause a persistent failure of the monsoon? None of these issues are trivial or cheap to deal with, and yet few are being accounted for in most popular discussions of the issue (including the chapter we are discussing here).

Is geo-engineering a fix?

In a word, no. To be fair, if the planet was a single column with completely homogeneous properties from the surface to the top of the atmosphere and the only free variable was the surface temperature, it would be fine. Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

The point is that a planet with increased CO2 and ever-increasing levels of sulphates in the stratosphere is not going to be the same as one without either. The problem is that we don’t know more than roughly what such a planet would be like. The issues I listed above are the ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know (to quote a recent US defense secretary). These are issues that have been raised in existing (very preliminary) simulations. There would almost certainly be ‘unknown unknowns’ – things we don’t yet know that we don’t know. A great example of that was the creation of the Antarctic polar ozone hole as a function of the increased amount of CFCs which was not predicted by any model beforehand because the chemistry involved (heterogeneous reactions on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles) hadn’t been thought about. There will very likely be ‘unknown unknowns’ to come under a standard business as usual scenario as well – another reason to avoid that too.

There is one further contradiction in the idea that geo-engineering is a fix. In order to proceed with such an intervention one would clearly need to rely absolutely on climate model simulations and have enormous confidence that they were correct (otherwise the danger of over-compensation is very real even if you decided to start off small). As with early attempts to steer hurricanes, the moment the planet did something unexpected, it is very likely the whole thing would be called off. It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.

Does reducing global warming imply changing human behaviour and is that possible?

This is a more subtle question and it is sensible to break it down into questions of human nature and human actions. Human nature – the desire to strive for a better life, our inability to think rationally when trying to impress the objects of our desire, our natural selfishness and occasionally altruism, etc – is very unlikely to change anytime soon. But none of those attributes require the emission of fossil fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere, just as they don’t require us to pollute waterways, have lead in gasoline, use ozone-depleting chemicals in spray cans and fridges or let dogs foul the sidewalk. Nonetheless, societies in the developed world (with the possible exception of Paris) have succeeded in greatly reducing those unfortunate actions and it’s instructive to see how that happened.

The first thing to note is that these issues have not been dealt with by forcing people to think about the consequences every time they make a decision. Lead in fuel was reduced because of taxation measures that aligned peoples preferences for cheaper fuel with the societal interest in reducing lead pollution. While some early adopters of unleaded-fuel cars might have done it for environmental reasons, the vast majority of people did it first because it was cheaper, and second, because after a while there was no longer an option. The human action of releasing lead into the atmosphere while driving was very clearly changed.

In the 1980s, there were campaigns to raise awareness of the ozone-depletion problem that encouraged people to switch from CFC-propelled spray cans to cans with other propellants or roll-ons etc. While this may have made some difference to CFC levels, production levels were cut to zero by government mandates embedded in the Montreal Protocols and subsequent amendments. No-one needs to think about their spray can destroying the ozone layer any more.

I could go on, but the fundamental issue is that people’s actions can and do change all the time as a function of multiple pressures. Some of these are economic, some are ethical, some are societal (think about our changing attitudes towards smoking, domestic violence and drunk driving). Blanket declarations that human behaviour can’t possibly change to fix a problem are therefore just nonsense.

To be a little more charitable, it is possible that what was meant was that you can’t expect humans to consciously modify their behaviour all the time based on a desire to limit carbon emissions. This is very likely to be true. However, I am unaware of anyone who has proposed such a plan. Instead, almost all existing mitigation ideas rely on aligning individual self-interest with societal goals to reduce emissions – usually by installing some kind of carbon price or through mandates (such as the CAFE standards).

To give a clear example of the difference, let’s tackle the problem of leaving lights on in rooms where there is no-one around. This is a clear waste of energy and would be economically beneficial to reduce regardless of the implications for carbon emissions. We can take a direct moralistic approach – strong exhortations to people to always turn the lights off when they leave a room – but this is annoying, possibly only temporary and has only marginal success (in my experience). Alternatively, we can install motion-detectors that turn the lights out if there is no-one around. The cost of these detectors is much lower than cost of the electricity saved and no-one has to consciously worry about the issue any more. No-brainer, right? (As as aside, working out why this isn’t done more would be a much better use of Levitt and Dubner’s talents). The point is changing outcomes doesn’t necessarily mean forcing people to think about the right thing all the time, and that cheap fixes for some problems do indeed exist.

To recap, there is no direct link between what humans actually want to do and the emissions of CO2 or any other pollutant. If given appropriate incentives, people will make decisions that are collectively ‘the right thing’, while they themselves are often unconscious of that fact. The role of the economist should be to find ways to make that alignment of individual and collective interest easier, not to erroneously declare it can’t possibly be done.

What is the real lesson from the horse-to-automobile transition?

Around 1900, horse-drawn transport was the dominant mode of public and private, personal and commercial traffic in most cities. As economic activity was growing, the side-effects of horses’ dominance became ever more pressing. People often mention the issue of horse manure – picking it up and disposing of it, it’s role in spreading disease, the “intolerable stench” – but as McShane and Tarr explain that the noise and the impact of dead horses in the street were just as troublesome. Add to that the need for so many stables downtown taking up valuable city space, the provisioning of hay etc. it was clear that the benefits of the horse’s strength for moving things around came at a great cost.

But in the space of about 20 years all this vanished, to be replaced with electrified trolleys and subways, and internal combustion engine-driven buses and trucks, and cars such as the Model-T Ford. Almost overnight (in societal terms), something that had been at the heart of economic activity had been been relegated to a minority leisure pursuit.

This demonstrates very clearly that assumptions that society must always function the same economic way are false, and that in fact we can change the way we do business and live pretty quickly. This is good news. Of course, this transition was brought about by technological innovations and the switch was decided based on very clear cost-benefit calculations – while cars were initially more expensive than horses, their maintenance costs were less and the side effects (as they were understood at the time) were much less burdensome. Since the city had to tax the productive citizens in order to clear up the consequences of their own economic activity, the costs were being paid by the same people who benefited.

Levitt took this example to imply that technological fixes are therefore the solution to global warming (and the fix he apparently favours is geo-engineering mentioned above), but this is a misreading of the lesson here in at least two ways. Firstly, the switch to cars was not based on a covering up of the manure problem – a fix like that might have involved raised sidewalks, across city perfuming and fly-spraying – but from finding equivalent ways to get the same desired outcome (transport of goods and people) while avoiding undesired side-effects. That is much more analogous to switching to renewable energy sources than implementing geo-engineering.

His second error is in not appreciating the nature of the cost-benefit calculations. Imagine for instance that all of the horse manure and dead carcasses could have been easily swept into the rivers and were only a problem for people significantly downstream who lived in a different state or country. Much of the costs, public health issues, etc. would now be borne by the citizens of the downstream area who would not be benefiting from the economic prosperity of the city. Would the switch to automobiles have been as fast? Of course not. The higher initial cost of cars would only have made sense if the same people who were shelling out for the car would be able to cash in on the benefits of the reduced side effects. This is of course the basic issue we have with CO2. The people benefiting from fossil fuel based energy are not those likely to suffer from the consequences of CO2 emissions.

The correct lesson is in fact the same as the one mentioned above: if costs and benefits can be properly aligned (the ‘internalising of the externalities’ in economist-speak), societies and individuals can and will make the ‘right’ decisions, and this can lead to radical changes in very short periods of time. Thus far from being an argument for geo-engineering, this example is an object lesson in how economics might shape future decisions and society.


To conclude, the reasons why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering so much are based on a misreading of the science, a misrepresentation of proposed solutions, and truly bizarre interpretations of how environmental problems have been dealt with in the past. These are, in the end, much worse errors than their careless misquotes and over-eagerness to shock highlighted by the other critiques. Geo-engineering is neither cheap, nor a fix, and the reasons why it is very likely to be a bad idea are ethical and legal, much more than its still-uncertain scientific merits.

406 Responses to “Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong”

  1. 201
    Hank Roberts says:

    David Cooke — some of your ideas are good;
    you seem to think they are original with you, and they’re not.
    You’re criticising your own outdated memories.
    Youu aren’t bothering to look up what others are doing.

    Look at the biochar video: it’s capturing not venting the gases, as Kevin points out for the third time.

    Look up combined PV/thermal plates (“PVT”) — already in use, e.g.

    It’s not hard to check this stuff. Your memory only tells you what used to be true the last time you learned about the subject. These days that’s guaranteed to be out of date. For current information, use a search tool.

  2. 202
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 197

    Hey Kevin,

    BTW sorry about the name confusion on my part,…


    RE: My to follow-on to Kevin’s comment,

    Hey All,

    In the close of my prior, I had asked the question of had anyone considered the resource of free plastic available for the creation of bio-digester tanks.

    First you hopefully understand that each thermoplastic has a different melt temp so extracting a single stock is not going to be that difficult. Secondly, you likely also understand that there is a limitation on the buoyancy of certain plastics meaning that the stocks there are generally limited to the less denser families. As to the heavier families they are likely at the bottom of the sea.

    Also for the technical ones about us, is it possible we may have missed taking into account the carbon sequestration that has already occurred over the last 60 years? WRT the amount of plastics generated and disposed of either in landfills or the oceans, it may be that the consumed fossil fuel balances may need re-adjustment… I would suspect that a loosely arranged 30 foot by 1200 mile by 800 mile patch of the ocean should harbor a significant amount of raw long chain carbon compounds. (As would the millions of miles of asphalt covered road beds…)

    Dave Cooke

  3. 203
    tharanga says:

    If anybody is interested, Ken Caldeira was recently interviewed in light of the confusion of his views brought up by the Freakonomics book.

    His take on it, here.

  4. 204

    Dave, you touch on an idea I had, namely that plastic in landfills is the main form of carbon sequestration going on today in most developed nations. Unfortunately, the carbon sequestered is way too low to be much help. On the digester/pyrolysis question, I think that it’s likely that in the real world it won’t be an either/or–different solutions will work for different situations.

    On another topic just mentioned, I doubt the additional heat from space-based solar is much of a worry; the “residence time” of waste heat in the atmosphere is pretty low. Also, given enough power you can sequester CO2 like crazy to compensate. I think the real problem is what Ray said: the state of the art isn’t close to being there yet for the space-based solar idea to be practically feasible.

  5. 205
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 196 L David Cooke – haven’t gotten through the rest of this or other subsequent comments, just to quick point out (about the decay rate):

    Inverters might need replacing ever ? years, there are maintenance costs, etc, though for solar power the bulk of the expense is the longer-lived infrastructure. (HVDC lines would, I assume, be made of aluminum – energy intensive per unit mass but not all that much mass relative to the whole thing, really, and you can recycle the aluminum, and how often would the aluminum need replacing anyway? Once every 500 years? I don’t know. By the way, we can run out of bauxite but never out of aluminum – worse comes to worse, we’ll get it from granite or felspar-rich sandstones or shales.)

    The 20/25 year warranty you might be thinking of is not a due date for energy production to go to zero; it might be 80 or 90 % of what it was at installation at that point.

    More later…

  6. 206
    Patrick 027 says:

    Lifetimes –

    1. A public subsidy to help with high up-front costs – either in direct contribution or very low interest rate lo-ans: Some care should be made as this may drive more investment into shorter-lifetime technology; thus the subsidy should be a function of technology lifetime.

    2. It is conceivable that solar PV technology might bifurcate into two niches: moderately expensive to cheap, higher efficiency, long-lasting devices that are manufactured at a slow rate, and extremely cheap lower efficiency devices that degrade faster – the later might be helpful in the event of disasters.

    Yes, some technology has warranties significantly shorter than 20 years, but as the 20-year warranty devices could reasonably be expected to produce 60 years worth of energy over 90 to 100 years, the devices with shorter warranties might concievably also last quite a bit longer than their warranties; some technology is prone to faster degradation, but the shorter warranties may also reflect that the technology is just new and somewhat unfamiliar. There seems to be a general tendency for PV technology to eventually reach a 0.5 % annual decay rate – that’s the impression I’ve gotten from what I’ve read. Note that the initial fast degradation seen in amorphous solar cells is factored into the nominal power – the nominal power is the power in full sun after that initial fast degradation period.

    Heat will tend to shorten the lifetime (one way is to increase the degradation of the encapsulating layer, causing a reduction in transparency), but it isn’t generally a serious problem unless concentrated sunlight is used.

    Efficiency tends to be higher in cold weather…

  7. 207
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 201

    Hey Hank,

    You are very correct most of the ideas I am sharing are in regards to articles from Mother Earth News nearly 30 years ago. (Even the modeling of the eyes rod and cones in Solar cells dates back to 1951/53 papers in Nature.) As to being up to date I figure I am about as up-to-date as the products currently on the market and from some media sources such as science daily maybe a bit more…

    Most of the PV panels I have been looking at run from a maximum of 200 to 100 watts with a size ranging from 48×43″ to 45×38″ with the technology running from amphorous cells to copper indium gallium selenium (CIGS) technology with most being available from Northern Tool and Equipment for under $600. Whether I look there or to ebay and purchase the 200 watt units there at prices of $750 both exceed my budget.

    As to the newest generation cells which include the Suniva Inc.’s screen printed 20% or the Konarka Technologies Inkjet printed solar cells or even to go as far as the IMEC demonstrated organic variety (See: ).

    Hank you appear to think my head is in the sand and that I am ignorant of change. I believe that is far from the truth; however, I will leave it to others to judge. In short, the basic technology of 30 years ago remains sound. The attempt to dress the technology up so that scientists and engineers can achieve a differentiation in the market with design or process patents is what I see as a roadblock. It is as though if the technical community cannot lay a claim to increasing value (Read make a fortune on changing the technology) that no one is interested in pursuing the implementation of the technology. The point is there is little that can be added today other then the widening of the spectrum of acceptance that will increase the conversion efficiency that science may likely add in the next couple of decades. (See: and Quantum well (dot) designs: )

    If you look at this article you can find a number of datum points I may have shared over the last two days:

    The point is if we can model the retina with flexible panels based on a product using a technology like this ( ) there is the possibility of both increasing the spectral acceptance and the energy capture. However, the wide-scale implementation remains about two decades out and we can ill afford to wait that long.

    If the rest of the science community wants to drag their feet and yet shout about mineral carbon harvesting then they need to draw a line in the sand so far all I see is shifting sand and nothing resembling a rock foundation to build a future on…

    Dave Cooke

  8. 208
    Earl Killian says:

    You did a great job with dealing with the issues in this post!

    However, let me ask about the issue raised by V. Ramanathan and Y. Feng in PNAS 2008.09.23 with On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead. They observe that are already geo-engineering with coal-power plant SOx emissions, which partially mask the effects of the CO2 from those same power plants. If we shut down the coal plants, temperatures will soar as the SOx is eliminated from the atmosphere, while the previously emitted CO2 remains. This is likely to trigger further feedback that will make our problems yet more severe. Would not replacing the coal SOx emissions with an equivalent amount of stratospheric SO2 be wise, not to mask continuing CO2 emissions, but simply to keep the temperature from rising further as we shut down coal plants?

  9. 209
    Patrick 027 says:

    L. David Cooke – (re your re Hank Roberts) – ” However, the wide-scale implementation remains about two decades out and we can ill afford to wait that long. ”

    Because the people who know how to make solar cells, as with any skilled or even unskilled labor pool, are a scarce resource, there are probably limitations in how rapidly production can be scaled up; also there is the matter of the industries that support industries, and the industries that support those industries, etc. Which is not to say that I think we can’t get some large changes soon, but that I wouldn’t expect complete takeover of fossil fuels by solar power within 20 years.

    CdTe is taking off. c-Si and a-Si are still growing too, I think. And CIGS. There’s no reason not to continue to improve manufacturing efficiency and product quality or improve designs – these are expected benifits of continuing along the solar cell learning curve and getting to the point of mass market advantages. And there are new promising materials on the horizon (CTZS or is it CZTS, zinc phosphide, and so forth, also semiconducting polymers, etc.) and designs (extremely thin layers with plasmon-enhanced absorption; nanoantennas…). There are reasons to look into these things …

    (the relative abundance of Cu, Sn, Zn, P, S, not to mention Fe, Cr, Ni, Mn, Si, C, Al, Ti, V, Zr, Nb, Ce, etc.) relative to the amounts that would be used in solar cells, relative to Te, Se, In, and Ga in particular (Cd is a byproduct of Zn in particular; Te and Se are mainly byproducts of Cu; Ga is a byproduct of mainly Al and In is a byproduct of mainly Zn – the supplies are limited by the rate of production of Al, Zn, and Cu. This might not be much of an issue for Cd but there are concerns about Te especially.)
    (c-Si is a nice material except that it needs a larger thickness to absorb light than many other PV materials (because c-Si has an indirect band-gap, as opposed to a direct-band gap). Taking advantage of total internal reflection (for example, by using a diffuse back reflector and perhaps light diffusion at the front as well) would allow thinner layers of such materials to be used. Concentrating the absorption of photons into a thinner layer (with photosensitizers, which could include using plasmons, or using an absorber in a folded junction between semiconductor layers) can also reduce recombination and internal resistance, allowing a smaller amount of cheaper quality of material (with smaller crystal grains) to be used to obtain the same or higher efficiency. Besides multijunction cells (which need to be current-matched) and spectral-splitting concentrators (mirror/lens with prism/diffraction grating – or multilayer luminescent concentrators (in skylights, 1 layer for solar UV, 1 layer for solar IR, and let the visible light through) (PS lumninescent concentrators can use diffuse light, as flat panel PV devices can), there is also the potential for using nanoparticles to convert higher energy photons to multiple electron-hole pairs, or using multi-band-gap materials (as I recall, a telluride of Zn,Mn doped with O ??). Alternatively, one could try to collect ‘hot’ charge carriers produced by the more energetic photons before relaxation and production of waste heat. There is also the idea of using a photonic crystal to absorb solar radiation, heat up, and emit radiation only at specific wavelengths to increase the efficiency of subsequent conversion to electricity.)
    … And we needn’t abandon continued research and development even while scaling up production of current technology. (Microsoft has produced a lot and they’re still making new products).


    I should point out (re my previous comments) that there will be some losses between panel output and consumer. Of course, there is already a ~ 10 % loss in the transmission/distribution system from existing power plants, and some of that (not all, since rooftop devices will occasionally supply energy to the grid) will be eliminated with rooftop applications. Although smaller scale power production may also have greater losses from inverters? (I’m guessing there). The additional losses to be considered in comparing solar (and wind, etc) energy to present day supplies are the electrical connections within an array, the HVDC, and the inverter. And storage…

  10. 210
    Ron R. says:

    Not having read their book yet (just came out) I think that the reason why Dubner and Levitt like geoengineering is simply because they are aligning themselves with the adaptationists over the mitigationists. They don’t want emissions cut, they want us to adapt after the fact or find some way, any way of dealing with them other than cuts. It’s funny that that’s also Big Energy’s position too. What it shakes down to is they simply don’t want to mess with Big Energy’s profits. Also they ahve chosen the “economy over the environment” argument. It makes me wonder whose paying them under the table…

    [Response: Given their likely book sales , I don’t think you need to look for any under the table funding… -gavin]

  11. 211
    Ron R. says:

    By the way, Dubner and Levitt sound like they’re just channeling Bjorn Lomborg.

  12. 212
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 209

    Hey Patrick,

    Sad to say, most of your last post is little more then noise… You are not addressing the basic issues. If you will take the time to review the highlights link regarding the quantum well/dot idea, basically it relates to the formation of a tapering cone pillar.

    This cone shaped pillar is one in which the well is formed at a ever decreasing distance as the base of the pillar gets wider. If you were to surround a non-tapering pillar and create a simpler 2 junction device and you approach creating a wide spectrum device similar to the rods and cones structure in the retina. The end result is there is no internal reflection the energy continues to be absorbed as the photons enter the substrate. The end result is the efficiency begins to approach roughly 70% of the theoretical maximum of 85% efficiency…

    As to implementation it has little to do with resources in as much as it is related transfer of knowledge. The manufacturing technique remains the biggest roadblock to moving forward. There just no economic capability to, on a large scale, build cells with nanometer molecular structures with tightly controlled changing dimensions that are repeated throughout the substrate. (The best method to-date would be a matrix of valleys surrounding a single pillar. The problem is insuring the build up of the sides of the valleys. In essence, you would be building not to micron or probably even to nanometer; but, to 100’s of picometer dimensions. (The best we have right now is about 65 microns on a large scale capability…)

    It is one thing to use an electron microscope to stack molecules; however, however it is another thing altogether to create the means to build trillions of cones and pillars in a single thin layer of Si or G-As. And to repeat this process half a billion times a year for the next 10 years…

    The last link in that post only discussed the creation of pillars as to try to try to create bendable or flexible cells. Try going further and create a vapor deposition system that creates nonometer pillars that taper at a set slope to try to form a quantum sink… We have quite a distance to go before we can achieve this capability….

    Beyond that issue is also the issue that until you specify a standard manufacturing will not change the product to commodity level which is what will be required to bring the price/value decisions into play. The best suggestion would be the establishment of the standards and move forward with the variations being standardized at the panel interface. (IE: Current Buss or Voltage Buss based on the known technology migration over the next 20 years.) In short, make it simple and define the dimensions and interfaces that will support the technology for the next 20 years and is adaptable to the technology that will be in place 20 years out.

    The point is define the technology and standard interfaces and move out. We have roughly 20 years if the science is correct to stop exceeding the 3 Gt of natural annual up take of carbon…, if we don’t stop trying to build the better mouse trap and start catching mice there won’t be any grain left….

    Dave Cooke

  13. 213
    Ike Solem says:

    Dave Cooke might want to read this:

    Shifting the world to 100 percent clean, renewable energy as early as 2030 — here are the numbers

    Most of the technology needed to shift the world from fossil fuel to clean, renewable energy already exists. Implementing that technology requires overcoming obstacles in planning and politics, but doing so could result in a 30 percent decrease in global power demand, say Stanford civil and environmental engineering Professor Mark Z. Jacobson and University of California-Davis researcher Mark Delucchi.

    To make clear the extent of those hurdles – and how they could be overcome – they have written an article that is the cover story in the November issue of Scientific American. In it, they present new research mapping out and evaluating a quantitative plan for powering the entire world on wind, water and solar energy, including an assessment of the materials needed and costs. And it will ultimately be cheaper than sticking with fossil fuel or going nuclear, they say.

    One central theme that backs this argument up is the inefficiency of fossil fuel energy conversion, due to the large losses of heat during combustion. For example, electric motors are far more efficient than gasoline motors, and if all gasoline motors were replaced by electrical ones, you would save large amounts of energy with no change in net energy demand. For more details:

  14. 214
    Patrick 027 says:

    … and storage.

    But the 2 year energy payback time (EPBT) may include all that, or at least that except for storage/retrieval losses (ie for example, there would otherwise be only a 1.5 year EPBT, but with 75 % efficiency from panel to regular grid (after which, losses are similar to other centrally-generated electricity). Of course, EPBT will vary with technology; my understanding is it will tend to decline with mass market advantages, … etc.

    And if panel costs go into the $7.5 to under $5 per average panel W ($1.5 to under $1 per peak W with 0.2 capacity factor), with a 25 % loss, this would effectively go to $10 to under $6.67 per average panel W. I think the balance of system costs might be kept within ~ $15 per average W. I’m not saying I offhand definitely know that it would, though. Also, the losses won’t necessarily by 25 % – that’s a sample but it’s near what one or more studies have used.

    Not all of that $15 per average W would be upfront costs for the full life of a panel, since some components might be replaced more often. That actually could be helpful to payment plans.


    The tendency for cold to increase panel efficiency would help reduce the seasonal range of solar power supply in temperate climates. Rooftop hybrid systems could increase the electrical supply by using waste heat to preheat water, while reducing additional heating needs.


    Albedo effects:
    When solar panels take the place of snow cover during part of the year:

    Example: Solar panel with annual average insolation of 180 W/m2, and average winter insolation of 120 W/m2; with conversion efficiency of 10 %, replaces land cover with albedo of 20 %. The local heating effect is then the same as the electrical output. Now, if the panel intercepts 120 W/m2 otherwise destined for snow cover with an albedo of 70 % (it varies), that would have a local heating effect of six times the electric power for that time of year, 5/6 of that being due to snow if the land would otherwise have an albedo of 20 %; if this represents 1/4 of the year, then the annual heating effect is 1 + (120/180 * 5 / 4) = 1 + 5/6 = 1.83 times the annual average electric power.

    Present day global energy consumption averaged over the Earth’s surface is about 0.02 W/m2. The electrical equivalent is about 0.007 W/m2. If global energy usage increased by a factor of 5, in electrical equivalent this would be about 0.035 W/m2. A quick estimate suggests the global climatological forcing of supplying this power with solar energy might be somewhere between 0 and 0.1 W/m2 (the example above suggests 0.07 W/m2), or could be negative if conversion efficiencies increase enough.

    Note that wind, hydroelectric power, and biofuels have zero net heating (except for possible feedbacks from changes in wind, etc. – not expecting anything big there) since it is mechanical energy within the climate system that would ultimately be converted to heat anyway. Geothermal, nuclear, and fossil fuels result in a climate forcing equal to the primary energy consumption, which (except for geothermal) is generally near 3 times the electrical equivalent for existing power plants (natural gas power plants tend to be a bit more efficient, though).

    Water needs – not really a problem for solar power in general.

  15. 215
    Patrick 027 says:

    … that’s weird. After I just posted the last comment, I got a message that said it looked like a duplicate and was deleted. And yet, there it is!

  16. 216
    Patrick 027 says:

    L. David Cooke –

    That sounds like very interesting technology.

    However, I think we’re talking at cross purposes. I certainly agree that we can no longer wait for ‘quantum leaps’ in improvements in the technology, nor is it the case that we need to do so.

    Also, some of the micro/nanostructuring of solar cells might not require such precise ordering. Some structures can be self-organizing (perhaps a wet sol-gel nanoparticle process, or taking advantage of crystal growth habits to tune structures using different voltages and currents (electro(chemical)deposition), temperatures, pressures, drying rates, etc. A homogeneous mixture often crystallizes into a heterogeneous arrangement due to finite solid solubilities – as seen in granite, and note the cooling rate effect as compared to basalt. What if some X-ray diffraction pattern could create a heat or photochemical grid to control production? Some microstructuring might take the form of simple thin layers with no need of further structuring.

  17. 217
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 213

    Hey Ike,

    I was aware of that, thanx! We still have not specified the National standards or local building codes to integrate the technology in structures, yet. Hence, costs will be higher by a min. of a factor of 2, just because you still have to build a roof and install the P V panels on top of that. Couple that with each installation being a one off and economically you start off being non-competitive. Going further even though the technology is available there are few turnkey solutions that have been devised.

    The point is that is only solar cells what about the C N G conversion. Why is it so difficult to get a simple distribution pump installed at every fueling station. I understand the issues; however, converting my vehicle to N G should not be one of them. ( Actually, a N G solution when coupled with a compressed air power plant would be great as you could employ a two stage power system or hybrid. The residual combustion heat could be transferred to a heat exchanger/compressor increasing the output efficiency 2 fold.)

    Dave Cooke

  18. 218
    Patrick 027 says:

    (PS not all micro/nano-structuring would necessarily serve the purpose of quantum confinement)

    Of course, the more expensive materials and processes can be used for solar cells in concentrating systems (CPV), which may be geometric or luminescent concentrators.

  19. 219
    Patrick 027 says:

    Correction about albedo and solar power:

    The radiative forcing of solar panels would be the total reduction in albedo, so the sample scenario of solar cells with a panel heating 1.83 times the electrical output would still have a total heating effect of 2.83 times the electrical output. The part of albedo reduction that is matched by electrical output simply has it’s heating effect elsewhere, mainly at the end-use. In this sample scenario, the total climate forcing would be similar to the direct heating (not the CO2,etc) of fossil fuel power plants, for the same amount of electricity. A global electrical power supply of primary energy equivalent of 50 TW might then have a global climate forcing near 0.1 W/m2. However, many solar cells will be in places which don’t get much snow, and some concentrating devices might still have a net negative climate forcing. Also, some solar cells, in particular some rooftop devices, might be in places where there used to be forests, in which case the ‘original’ surface albedo would have been considerably lower then 70 % even with snow cover. (Land use climate forcing to date would include albedo changes from replacement of forest by cropland (negative forcing, including enhanced snow albedo) and clearing and darkenning of snow in urban areas and roads (positive forcing) – these being small effects (except maybe locally) in comparison to gas and aerosol emissions, etc.)


    On energy storage:

    CAES and some other mechanical energy storage systems, and chemical energy storage, could easily work on seasonal to interannual time scales. The thermal storage at solar thermal power plants (generally are types of CSP) would not be for seasonal time scales but instead would help control mainly the hourly to diurnal variations in supply.


    On biofuels:

    The whole corn ethanol pathway is not promising in so far as it doesn’t include cellulose. It has a bigger role in national security than in climate change mitigation, and the long term national security effect is problematic because of food issues. (Not that we need more corn to eat and feed livestock – if anything we have too much corn; but we could use the land for other crops, of course.)

    This isn’t to say that it requires more energy than it uses, but it doesn’t produce all that much more energy than it uses (so far) and some of that energy comes from coal, making it potentially worse for the environment than petroleum – though some may come from natural gas. I’ve heard soybean biodiesel is somewhat better, and sugarcane ethanol from Brazil is decent.

    There are sugar policies and other agricultural policies that need to be fixed – they should be regardless of climate change issues.

    But biofuels need not compete with food. Every year there will be droughts and floods and hail storms, early frosts (even with climate change, presumably poleward shifts in agriculture or making the best use of changes in growing seasons will continue to make early frosts/freezes or late frosts/freezes a risk – if this were not the case than why would they be problems now or before). There will also be blighted crops, food contamination/disease, bruises and peels, crumbs stuck to muffin wrappers, used napkins, used coffee grounds, etc. Biofuel technology could increase the efficiency of the whole system. Also, there’s algae.

  20. 220
    Patrick 027 says:

    On light trapping to concentrate absorption of photons into a thinner layer:

    When I first heard of that, I actually wondered if it didn’t violate the second law of thermodynamics, but then I realized that it is a basic consequence of total internal reflection. Assuming perfect antireflection, such as in a gradual change in index of refraction (n), math shows that the intensity of radiation, in the absence of scattering, absorption, emission, or reflection, must be proportional to the square of the (real component of) the index of refraction (at least in the simple case that group velocity and phase propagation are in the same direction). Assuming this does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, this requires that blackbody radiation intensity must vary as a function of the index of refraction. But total internal reflection keeps the more intense radiation within a high n blackbody or a high n material enveloping a blackbody from being seen directly from the outside – any perfect blackbody radiation will be (along the lines of sight leading to the blackbody) be seen as having blackbody radiation intensity for the n of the material from which the observation is conducted, assuming no intervening reflection, scattering, absorption, or emission. Etc.)

    And realizing that, it is then not necessary to go through elaborate ray-tracing excercises to realize some basic conclusions – that it doesn’t matter if an antireflective coating or interface uses gradual transition, texturization, etc – total internal reflection will still work if there is scattering of the rays at some point and reflection at the back of the cell so that the radiation becomes nearly isotropic before coming back to the front. (With texterization or forward scattering near the front, the ‘cone of acceptance’ will be broken up or made fuzzy, but it still sets a limit on which photons or what proportion of photons can escape.)

  21. 221
    Armando Brinks says:

    Did anyone else lose faith in the climate-related expertise of Myhrvold, the Intellectual Venture guy the authors portray as a uber-brilliant visionary, when he was quoted mentioning “a breakdown of the thermohaline circulation system in the North Atlantic, which would put an end to the Gulf Stream”?

    [Response: Almost everything they (myhrvold and wood) are quoted saying is a very poor reflection of the actual science (if not completely wrong). I don’t know why anyone would think they have any credibility on this issue. -gavin]

  22. 222
    Hank Roberts says:

    > After I just posted the last comment, I got a message …
    If the Return key bounces and signals twice, it’s interpreted as two responses; if the content is not different, you get that message.

  23. 223
    sidd says:

    Mr. Patrick: Re: cones of acceptance, critical angles

    There is an excellent book on kinetic theory in the Landau and Lifshitz series, and, in particular a beautiful exposition of the law of detailed balance. If you consider fluxes through cones in phase space scaled by the occupation number, i think you will find that everything works like it says on the box.

  24. 224

    Dubner in today’s Australian.
    It started by looking like journalism, and then presented hurricanes as climate, told us that since trees need more water than CO2 increasing the CO2 would let them grow with less water, and shaded steadily into oddness.

  25. 225
    Nick Gotts says:

    since trees need more water than CO2 increasing the CO2 would let them grow with less water – Adrian Midgely

    That’s actually true to some extent. Plants absorb CO2 through stomata on their leaves, through which they also lose water. They respond to increased CO2 levels by reducing the number of stomata and hence transpiration losses. However, there are various secondary effects, both to individual plants and to ecological systems, that mean this is not pure gain.

  26. 226
    ron says:

    when i hear people say geoengineering will be cheap i just think of how cheap and fruitless all the beach replenishment programs are.

  27. 227
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 216

    Hey Patrick,

    The closest to the level of technology I can see required is along the lines of this work:

    Going with your crystalline silicon die idea, the idea of trying to grow a crystal with constantly diminishing dimensions would be similar to trying to grow the tips of quartz crystals. Until we get to the point that we can define why it is that SiO2 crystals have sharp tips and start growing billions of these SBS within a substrate the technology will not advance.

    What I see you suggesting in your comments is the idea that if you were to take a copper plate and using a grid masking with dimensions on the order of less then 50 nonometers you vapor deposit diamond seeds, next you remove the mask and then deposit a a non conducting insulator followed by a deposition of Silicon and then by using a nitric acid was you end up with micro dots of diamond and silicon. From there you would have to lay down a gold grid interconnecting the silicon and then grow your tapered silicon cones, apply your doping elements followed by your insulator. You would then have to use some thing like a x-ray machined grid to remove the insulator from the surfaces of the diamond so that you could grow your nanotubes. And WaLa you have your next generation solution, sorry it is not that simple…

    We are no where near to the technology that we can control the molecular structure on that scale, much less specify where and how the crystals will form. Trying to control the ionic charge of an electron cloud so that you can specify the dataum points of the dots alone would be the fruition of a life time of work. Going further to specify the crystalline structure at the molecular level is hilarious… In essence that would be the equivalent of controlling the location of rain drops landing on the ground in a specific grid pattern…

    Anyway, you might want to consider the subject of our discussion in relation to the subject of this thread. The solution that we are striving to resolve is a technical and not a human or of a societal nature. This should point to all of us that first we have a technical focus and secondly we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only acceptable solution appears to be a technical one…

    The problem remains the same, the time to take the work from the laboratory to the a consumer commodity is long and you have to negotiate a mine-field of MBAa that do not want their stability shaken and that is not even getting into the politics…


    (PS: Concur that Ethanol from feed stocks or that utilize current arable land is a massive error in judgment. Bio-mass that utilizes non-arable land or non-food stocks is the focus. Whether the end fuel is in the methane family or the lipid family matters little. Note: The recent entry of Big Oil in Algae research. (Experiments run from the use of high pressure and (Solar?)heat to even a roller press to release the lipids.)

    Hey Ike,

    Just as an aside when looking at the various transportation options… Personally, for transportation systems I liked the 1968 idea of metro cars moving on a inter-metro rail and the use of Rail Trucks for personal transportation and goods deliveries (illustrated in Pop Sci). These can be more easily be powered by controlled pulse AC motors (Hence the greater efficiency as you suggest, (Roughly, a 90% conversion from energy to work…).) or if necessary a low carbon combustion system coupled with the higher efficiency of the metal-metal rails, (Read low friction surface), reaching a efficiency of nearly 35%.

    The main problem is in the implementation, how do you stop when traveling 100 mph and stopping every 20 miles at that… (With 90% of the trip is either speeding up or slowing down. For a 1 mile long train that means after 10 min you can get up to 100mph for about 1 min. with the remaining 7 min. being the braking cycle. (Though a large elctro-magnet embedded in the track bed would do the trick, it would likely as wipe out every Magnetic Stripe Card, or EM based storage medium within 1/2 mile…) This would offer you an average speed of about 50 mph, if you allowed 3 min for departure and boarding.

    Would it not be more effective to simply employ EM rails under the current highway beds and allow individual traffic instead…? At least with a hybrid design like this it would be scalable and could be implemented on expressways first… Plus depending on the number of Lanes and the length of the segments, (Cars/Trucks per segment), it could be solar powered by day… Implementation time roughly 8 hours/mile/lane, materials costs roughly $1500/mile/lane. Conversion cost for current hybrids, less the $1000. Motivation to implement 0…

    Dave Cooke

  28. 228
    Hank Roberts says:

    > how do you stop when traveling 100 mph and stopping every 20 miles at that

  29. 229
    Patrick 027 says:

    “The solution that we are striving to resolve is a technical and not a human or of a societal nature. This should point to all of us that first we have a technical focus and secondly we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only acceptable solution appears to be a technical one… ”

    1. – the paragraph immediately following illustrates that there is a technical-strategical-economic-environmental/safety side…

    (the last words mentioned because any large category of energy sources will contain options that could do some damage – chemicals are used in solar cell production, wind power has bird/bat/ice-throwing issues, etc, but these things can be addressed; chemicals can be used with safety measures taken, etc, and there is a technical aspect to this as well as policy)

    … but also an economic-environmental/safety-policy side. Simply subsidizing clean energy and energy efficiency will tend to make fossil fuels cheaper because of reduced consumption, which will limit the reduced consumption of fossil fuels. If the externalities were appropriately addressed with imposed price signals, market economy behavior will tend to channel more demand and more investment into the supply toward efficiency and clean energy. The reaction of demand to the price signal would by itself tend to induce an opposite shift in prices, but the reaction of investment to that potential shift in demand will tend to keep fossil fuels from becomine too cheap in response to reduced consumption, and tend to grow the supply of the cleaner options. This isn’t just about increasing the production of existing commercial technology – the price signal will also enhance the flow of investment toward R&D for technology improvement. Technology is not independent of policy (not that this is what you were saying, but it deserves emphasis).

    Now, if the market worked perfectly, and/or if this price signal had been in place a while ago (because of the market has a learning curve, R&D and scaling up of production take some time), we might perhaps leave it at that. However, there is a role for having some public property (if for no other reason than to avoid the psychological suffocation of everything being owned, though there are other justifications), and I think the market can benifit from some large-scale planning and further regulation (PS though there is something to be said for ‘buyer beware’, safety and quality regulations could boost demand by offering reassurance to consumers; Hopefully China learns that lesson), and subsidies and government investment to help get past kinks/hysteresis/etc and habitual maladaptive behavior (building codes). in the supply-demand relationships and to help different parts move without too much asynchrony (eg the standardized sizes and designs you mentioned before) – so long as there is not too much micromanaging and picking of winners and losers without regard to costs and benifits (although the international market should give some incentive for governments to choose wisely, tempering the favors given to prefered constituent groups by their representatives).

    (One of the nice things about the market economy is that the price signals flow so as to present a proxy measure of life cycle costs – if the energy payback time of a technology were too long, for example, then either it would not be selected by the market because of the expense of clean energy input, or else too much of the climate emissions price signal would spill into the cost of the ‘clean’ option, signaling that it is not so clean in reality. Of course, at some point people have to make decisions about future plans, government or private, and studies of likely energy payback times and other things can be done in guiding these decisions – we don’t necessarily need the market to know these things, but the market is a valuable proof, and ultimately mature technologies should be left largely to survive or fail on their own except for the other justified imposed price signals and general large-scale planning/regulation.)


    I’m not sure how much we are really disagreeing or agreewing with each other.

    My position is that:

    1. There is exponential growth of the PV market right now (wind, too). Prices are coming down. CdTe is ready for ‘prime time’, and CIGS and amorphous Si are doing well, too. The economics of c-Si have also improved, as the industry works with and on different production methods and designs – in particular, using solar-grade Si and polycrystalline material instead of monocrystalline material, etc. TiO2-dye-electrolyte cells … haven’t heard much about them but I think they’re making progress. I also just read of a plastic solar cell that has broken through 7 % efficiency.

    I’m not an expert on the details, but I don’t see why quantum dots and/or molecule-level precision or any nanoscale-precision in general should be necessary to achieve light-trapping to boost the economics of c-Si solar cells. (Scattering of photons (either at the back of the photovoltaic layer or within it or even at the front) to make the reflection off the back as it reaches the front closer to isotropic and thus less concentrated in the cone of acceptance (whether a fuzzy probabalistic entity or a an actual cone) doesn’t require precision in nanostructures.) Light trapping reduces the amount of c-Si material needed, and by increasing the density of photon absorption, allows thinner layers of poorer quality material, with smaller crystal grains, to achieve higher efficiencies.

    That smaller crystal grains can be used with thinner layers is not about quantum confinement. These are the crystal grains that spontaneously occur when a solid phase is produced. Grain boundaries result in reduced conversion efficiency. If the electrons and holes have shorter paths to drift from photon absorption to electrode, one can allow for a greater density of crystal grain boundaries or other imperfections in the crystal lattice, including dopants, which, as I understand it, actually improve charge-carrier mobility. This means cheaper production for higher efficiency.

    But aside from that, just because we have technology ready to massively deploy now and/or quite soon, doesn’t mean R&D should not be stopped, either in continuing to improve the commercial technology or in coming up with potentially even better options.

    Some materials are quite scarce – especially Te, Se, Ga, and In. This could impose limits on the the total PV power supply from CdTe and CIGS cells. This doesn’t mean that CdTe and CIGS can’t make a difference – they are, as I understand it, a long way from reaching the limits of material scarcity, but growth in the production of CdTe and CIGS could at some point slow down if not reverse. R&D in other options now can add additional commercially available technologies to the mix in the future and keep the overall market growing faster.

    It is also just a good idea to have some ‘technodiversity’ in the event that a problem is discovered or to increase the probability of finding something better. I think I’ve read that there may be some climate-emissions from amorphous Si cell production that are not tied to the energy input and thus will not decrease with time as the energy sources used in production shift. It may be quite small (?) compared to emissions from natural gas, oil, and coal, but it is there. There may be other pollution issues that are discovered at some point – Not that they couldn’t be managed (at some cost), and not that I’m expecting anything catastrophic, but just something to note.

    New technology doesn’t necessarily require all the bells and whistles, like photosensitizing nanocrystals and quantum confinement and photonic crystals. It can be as simple as just finding a new PV material (perhaps copper-tin-zinc-sulfide ? or zinc phosphide ?) that offers promise for reasonable efficiency, might be cheaper to process and less scarce, involve less environmental and safety issues, work better with other PV module components, etc, and the only reason it is not used now is that nobody took the effort to invest laboratory time, etc, to learn how to make it work, because ‘everybody’ was so focussed on Si, etc, just like they’ve been just fine with using fossil fuels.

  30. 230
    L. David Cooke says:

    Re: 228

    Hey Hank,

    Yep!, that would work, the only problem is the use of 800 little legs is not terribly efficient on a train…, unless you know something we don’t… (Things that flash through my mind are Mars/Lunar
    Rovers..) Cheers! Dave

  31. 231
    Patrick 027 says:

    …”and the only reason it is not used now is that nobody took the effort to invest laboratory time”…

    Well, not literally nobody, but you get what I mean.


    And I’m not sure, but I think plasmon-enhanced photon absorption might just involve thin layers of material, not intricate two-dimensional or three dimensional patterns. Although it might also be done by using nanoparticles formed or deposited on phase boundaries between semiconductors, in which case, I’m not sure if it is necessary for precision arrangement to have a useful effect; a random arrangement or some self-organized short-range organization might do well.

    And also, some structures arise spontaneously. Eletrolysis, among other things, can produce dendritic growth patterns. Think of how lipids sponatenously form spheres in water. A mixture can undergo a phase transition that produces a heterogenous mixture of phases that preferentially form as layers or other shapes. Tiny structures can be contolled by macrocopic parameters.

    And tiny structures can serve roles that do not require precision. The nanoscale porosity of a TiO2 layer formed by a sol-gel process can be used to increase the area per unit volume of the dye-sensitized interface between the TiO2 and a liquid electrolyte, or perhaps on oxide of copper, etc.

  32. 232
    Patrick 027 says:

    For example:

    Find two semiconductors with limited solid solubility in each other and some other substance with limited solid solubility in both, so that when the materials crystallize from a melt or solution or (photo/thermo/electro)chemical reaction, they form a number of crystal grains of semiconductors with a third substance forming tiny particles at those grain boundaries. Choose materials so that they mutually dope each other in favorable ways. Change the rate of phase growth (via electric fields and currents, rate of drying, temperature, etc.) to tune the micro/nano-structure.

    OR do this with some combination of materials with different properties, and use the differences in properties to remove one of the phases and then replace it with another material, maintaining the micro/nano-structure.

  33. 233
    Patrick 027 says:

    Nanoparticle sizes in a sol-gel can be tuned by … pH … well I know they can be tuned. It has to do with the thermodynamics of the interfaces between different materials (for example, the physics that gives rise to the surface tension of water, which tends to bead up on hydrophobic surfaces…).

  34. 234
    Patrick 027 says:

    “I’m not sure if it is necessary for precision arrangement to have a useful effect”

    Sometimes it’s more about topology than geometry.

  35. 235
    Patrick 027 says:

    … and tiny spheres may preferentially stack into particular arrangements just because of the kinetics and thermodynamics of it.

  36. 236
  37. 237
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 229

    Hey Patrick,

    Many of the newer designs incorporate what appears to be an inverse herringbone pattern within the substrate, which act to reduce the reflection out of the cell. The problem is the energy introduced is not generating electricity; but, becoming heat.

    As we have talked about before heat is not desirable in a PV cell. The difference, in the basic designs is that on one hand we are using the HF quanta to dislodge an electron from a metallic molecules electron cloud and the other is simply increasing the “ringing” of the metal molecule. Reducing the “ringing” and increasing the exchange of the electron/hole content should be the goal and not reductions in reflection…

    As to your comments regarding the energy market. To put it in simple terms, we have a case in which we have two possible products. On the one had we have a committed infrastructure for which demand is increasing and resources are decreasing, hence the price is increasing. For the investors this is the best of both worlds. On the other hand we have a product for which the demand is slowly increasing and the goal is to decrease the price. As you should be able to see the later is not necessarily the desirable choice for the average investor. This is a major roadblock that will need to be overcome, not simply increasing the price or decreasing the availability of the undesirable technology. You have to purposefully end the older technology and to modify/improve the infrastructure to adjust to the newer technology. However, before you can do this you have to define the attributes of the application of the new technology…

    I think maybe it would be better to summarize things a bit…

    To make the technology change, increasing the cost of Oil is not going to reduce the speculation on Oil. Reducing the cost of solar PV is not necessarily going to increase the demand if there is a lack of predefined infrastructure. Hence, if you want to move towards a low carbon and renewable system the plug and play ability of the system and the ability to ride much of the current infrastructure will provide the greater chance of implementation. It is likely that the energy density of the source systems or reserves (by surface area more then volume) will have the greater impact over anything else.

    So keeping with the ideas that Dr. Schmidt first laid out and the likelihood of the requirements for moving forward, in your opinion what is likely the best path forward?

    Dave Cooke

  38. 238
    Patrick 027 says:

    L. David Cooke – the point about infrastructure compatability is a good one, and that along with the phenomenon of habit and kinks/hysteresis in the supply-demand relationship (mass market advantage) – though the later is related to compatibility issues – and these are good reasons for some auxiliary policies to come along with a tax/cap.

    People who like to say that the government is wasteful (well, true, it is, but it seems at least some of those same people can’t correctly identify the waste from the good spending or will happily partake of the waste) might be suspicious that the government is choosing inefficient pathways. It might offer comfort to them to see solutions competing in the market. The price signal from a tax (or cap with near 100 % auction, etc.) allows the market to respond to choose the more efficient options, and in response to the price signal, produce the most value per emission. It is an elegant solution in that way.

    Granted, a price signal need not be imposed directly; capping and curbing mining of coal would make coal more expensive and produce a price signal in that way, even if the caps are not auctioned. If a renewable energy portfolio mandate is based on percentages, that would create a price signal as well. On the other hand, mandating production of a given amount of renewable energy would not be such good incentive for greater efficiency in energy use; the pull of investment toward clean energy could impose a price signal on fossil fuels indirectly.

    As clean energy and efficiency increase, the demand for fossil fuels will decline, but use of fossil fuels will not decline as fast if the result is to lower the price. Imposing a price signal on fossil fuels’ C content insures that demand and supply will be driven away from that option.

    Bear in mind I am not simply talking about mandating a price. That is a clumsy move. Mandating a price increase will drive away demand but pull in investment via the profit motive, increasing the supply – unless the mandate is for a set price, and not a price above the market value (the later would be hard to regulate, I’d think). A mandated price reduction pulls in demand but drives out investment, leading to shortages. A tax or subsidy imposes a price signal in such a way as to drive both investment and demand in the same direction; this is because, for the taxed item, the consumer sees a higher price while the supplier sees less revenue.

  39. 239
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 238

    Hey Patrick,

    Cap and Trade or a Carbon tax that does not directly fund alternative energy resources is worthless. Income from these sources going to the government coffers does not increase the renewable energy being generated, so that is a false perception. As I said, without a replacement solution you simply continue to tighten the noose around the neck of the consumer and hence your society. Now if instead the funds collected were to go to the modification of the technology base and flow to the construction of a specific renewable technology now you may have something…

    As to the idea of sending a “signal”, this is garbage, IMHO. Signals have been around for 30 years since the US pumped its peak oil in the early 1970’s. They have done little to nothing; but, egged on abuse of power/market share, monopolistic pricing schemes and simple graft.

    To me, placing a price on carbon and not specify mineral carbon is ludicrous. In essence, that means that the carbon contained in my body and surrounding environment has economic value exceeding the current use. What is to stop this from going overboard…? Unless you legislate limits what in essence you have done is opened up a new ball of worms regarding land use and Eminent Domain. (In essence, it could become possible that Governments could than tax your roof top not only for the treatment of the rain water run off; but, also based on the potential of your possessions to generate power. Bet, this would make a heck of a Sci Fi novel…)

    Expecting the market to define the future is like leaving the safety of your offspring to a crap shoot. Depending on who shows up defines the guardianship and does little to protect them. Unless you specify the character of the allowed technology and remove the more hazardous technology from the market you will achieve little.

    Sad to say a light hand will not make the necessary changes. Though the heavy handedness has it’s own consequences, the probability of threatening life on the planet is less through legislating technology then continuing down the current road…. (A light hand certainly did not work with CFCs, it took a heavy hand, likewise the current light handed approach against HFCs is not going to make much headway without direct government intervention.)

    Dave Cooke

  40. 240
    Patrick 027 says:

    “Cap and Trade or a Carbon tax that does not directly fund alternative energy resources is worthless. Income from these sources going to the government coffers does not increase the renewable energy being generated, so that is a false perception. As I said, without a replacement solution you simply continue to tighten the noose around the neck of the consumer and hence your society.”

    Okay, well I haven’t actually said what I would choose to do with the revenues yet (at least not recently).


    1. consider a ‘heavy handed approach’ of capping the emissions to a set level and pulling that level down over time.

    Why wouldn’t a tax or auction of those caps have at least the same if not a stronger effect?

    2. However that revenue is spent, it would either: 1. reduce the deficit and help pay down the debt, helping the future economy; 2. reduce other taxes, helping the economy; 3. go toward paying the costs that it represents – adaptation and/or mitigation of climate change and/or it’s effects, including agriculture and other land use issues, biodiversity and ecosystem protection, and population growth mitigation; 4. payments for economic adaptation to the policy itself – such a job training for former coal miners to be employed by the solar power industry, etc.

    “To me, placing a price on carbon and not specify mineral carbon is ludicrous.”

    I totally agree (except for carbon in methane emissisons, etc.)

    “Sad to say a light hand will not make the necessary changes.”

    I didn’t think I was advocating a light hand. But in your own defense, I haven’t put the entirety of my proposal into a single comment.

    “As to the idea of sending a “signal”, this is garbage, IMHO. Signals have been around for 30 years since the US pumped its peak oil in the early 1970’s.”

    Then why has oil been so cheap until a few years ago?


    “in your opinion what is likely the best path forward?

    Here is my proposal:

    A tax on emissions (for simplicity of enforcement, the tax should be applied upstream of the point of emission where possible, such as a sales tax on fuel per fossil C content – as opposed to a sales tax on electricity and products, etc, per fossil C emission, etc.). All fossil C as CO2 emissions should be treated equally – the cement emissions and fossil fuel emissions should be treated the same; the cement industry and fossil fuel industry should not face seperate sets of caps or taxes in so far as CO2 emissions are concerned. Ideally, all unbalanced emissions (human and other respiration of CO2 from recently formed organic matter is balanced by photosynthesis and need not be considered) of well-mixed gases (aerosol effects are complicated and need to be treated a bit differently; climate forcing via directly anthropogenic albedo changes (replacement of forest with cropland, etc.) could also be taxed (though that might be a negative tax) but it may be too small an effect to justify the regulation effort) should be treated the same per unit GWP (global warming potential – a time integrated measure of warming effect).

    Revenue would be divided up among the following:

    1. subsidies for CO2 sequestration (if environmentally safe, at the same rate as the CO2 tax).

    2. R&D for clean energy and energy efficiency, and public subsidies for clean energy and efficiency implementation, including demonstration projects and help for industries to grow to the point of mass markets; other climate change mitigation R&D and subsidiesequal per capita.

    3. R&D and investments in climate change adaptation measures, and reparation for climate change damages. (Efforts to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, investments in water resource management, compensation for loss in farmland property value and coastal property value, and other losses in ecosystem services, and/or paying for replacement of ecosystm services, help for climate change refugees and their recieving countries, etc.)

    4. help for economic adaptation to this policy (ie job training for former coal miners, etc.)

    1 & 2 & 3 – farming, land use issues (crop breeding, soil management (including biochar), better irrigation techniques, water infrastructure, biofuels, efficiency improvements in food production, etc.)

    2 & 3 – limiting population growth (social security, family planning, education for women/girls, etc.)

    5. cuts in other taxes

    6. equal per capita pay back

    More explanation may come later.

  41. 241
    CM says:

    (This is actually on topic — the economics of behavior modification, though not the topic of geoengineering.)

    L. David Cooke said:

    Cap and Trade or a Carbon tax that does not directly fund alternative energy resources is worthless.

    Au contraire! The point of a carbon tax is not to fund anything, but to drive down the use of fossil fuels by driving up the cost. Revenues are a side effect. (Ditto for cap-and-trade with government-auctioned certificates; I’ll use “tax” as shorthand for both.)

    We do need government funding for renewable energy R&D and a variety of incentives for switching. But that only means we need adequate funding on the expense side of the budget. What revenues the funding comes from is, again, irrelevant in principle.

    I say “in principle” for two reasons. First, and much as you argue, with more available alternatives, fossil fuel demand will be more responsive to price signals, and the tax policy will realize more of its potential. If markets were perfect, this would take care of itself, but they aren’t. That argues for a policy mix with both a carbon tax and funding for renewables carefully phased in together. It doesn’t require them to be linked by an earmark, though. And without it, a tax still won’t be worthless, just worth less. It will still provide the incentive for *some* energy switching and saving with available technologies.

    Second, an earmarked tax may be an easier political sell, inter alia *because* it panders to this widespread misconception that the point of a carbon tax is to *fund* something. Dispelling the misconception lets one consider a wider range of policy options: if one is concerned about unemployment, one might want to offset the carbon tax by a modest cut in taxes on labor; if one is concerned about the social impact of fuel costs, one might prefer to target the revenues at poverty reduction. (Explicitly linking such expenses to carbon-tax revenue is, again, a political sell, not a logical requirement.) The tax will serve its purpose in either case, though more or less efficiently. And in any case, it is still possible to boost government spending on renewables separately — to begin with, by redirecting all kinds of subsidies from non-renewable energy.

    All that being said, earmarking carbon-tax revenues for renewable energy promotion might be a good idea (depending on detailed policy considerations that will likely vary from country to country). But let’s not fall into the trap of saying a carbon tax is just a government cash cow that is worthless for the environment if the revenues are not used for a particular purpose. It’s meaningless and it will only help the fossil-fuel industries bury a tax.

  42. 242
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 241

    Hey CM,

    Given the choice between cap and trade and cap and tax I clearly prefer the latter with the Cap and Tax clearly being ear marked. If the intent is to move to a different technology due to “unforeseen” hazards, then the cost must be born by those who authorized the technology. Hence, if the government specifies that a product or technology proves to have unforeseen consequences and that technology or product has become “embedded”, then it will have to be the responsibility of the government to fund the necessary changes to move forward.

    This is not unlike historically questionable land being opened for development. When a 50 year flood or a 100 year storm comes along after said opening up the of land to development, we have a crisis. Government steps in with partial compensation and removes these lands from future development. This is likely what will have to happen here.

    Due to the embedded nature of the current technology in the societal infrastructure a “light hand” is not going to make the necessary change. At the same time A carbon tax that is not ear marked will only likely replace the lost “mineral carbon” tax base and will not remedy the societal losses if an alternative is not provided for. (Remembering of course that all taxes are simply passed to consumers and are only seen as a price increase, with no visible benefits to those being taxed…)

    On the conservative side I can see a major issue as the government provisions reeks of government control or nationalization in a free democracy. The problem is there is likely no other way to make the change. If the rules are written such that specific goals and time-gates are put into place there is the best chance to make the necessary changes and specify the return of the national energy industry to the free market. This is not unlike the legislation that will have to follow the current re-establishment of financial regulations. With the return of regulations heralding the reduction of the active involvement of the US government in that industry.

    (Of course you could always use the technique called “matched investment” in which the government would match an individual investors funding of a key energy industry…, with the investor reaping the profits and the government reaping the taxes… I will have to leave the specifics up to the political experts.)

    However, tax or trade without being earmarked is simply the rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Boat Deck or the Baths Deck (F) of the Titanic. If you are not going to actively move to an alternative society as a whole, even after the loss of the Baby Boomers, the follow on generations may not be able to keep their heads above water. Even worse is if the new technology is not simpler there will be a similar issue. The current indications of the reduced student populations expressing an interest in technically intensive subjects suggests there will not be enough technical types to design, implement and maintain the alternative systems.

    Dave Cooke

  43. 243
    RichardC says:

    242 LDC says, “(Remembering of course that all taxes are simply passed to consumers and are only seen as a price increase, with no visible benefits to those being taxed…)”

    Remember that all taxes are simply a direct reduction in the state/national/global debt, which is a big benefit. Even if spent, the effect on the economy is obvious. Were you asleep during the stimulus?

    That said, I like tax/rebate per capita of the entire planet. That would replace a lot of foreign aid. The Initial rate should be low, with a step increase every year, say $10/tC to be increased by $10/tC each year for 20 years. Everyone gets fed and we all know what spewing carbon costs and how it is going to get more expensive. You want to spew carbon? That’s your human right. You should pay your own way, though.

  44. 244
  45. 245
    Patrick 027 says:

    “(Remembering of course that all taxes are simply passed to consumers and are only seen as a price increase, with no visible benefits to those being taxed…)”

    But if there are other options, including just using less of that product, then the price signal serves it’s purpose. It is a signal, after all – it communicates something about the value of that transaction.

  46. 246
    Mark says:

    “(Remembering of course that all taxes are simply passed to consumers and are only seen as a price increase, with no visible benefits to those being taxed…”

    Citation needed.

    This only applies when there is a free market. Marketing is all about ensuring that the customer is not informed and therefore cannot buy rationally, making the Free Market fail.

    In many cases, there is a monopoly. IP laws like copyright and patent ensure there IS no free market.

    Then, as Patrick says, there’s the option of “not buying”, which I’m sure many corporations would like to see banned as an illegal activity. They certainly assume any money they don’t get is a loss, rather than a “not buy”.

    Lastly, if someone can make their product with less CO2 tax on it, they can undercut the others and make great profits. All under the aegis of Proper Capitalism.

    Assuming that CO2 taxes would be passed on in perpetuity assumes that technology cannot advance.

    Is this what the US has come to?

  47. 247
    Patrick 027 says:

    In an idealized free market, the suppliers pass along the cost of production to the consumers. If the economy as a whole is able to benifit from a chain of economic activity, then there will be some net profit – there is greater benefit than cost – and this benifit will be distributed in some way along the chain. Each participant puts something in and gets something out (including the consumer, who must work (time, effort, investment in him/herself, sacrifice of alternatives, etc.) to earn the the resources to afford the good/service), and the net benifit – that is, the profit, is the motivation. Economic activity is sustained along pathways that produce more than they consume. Along a chain, price signals propagate up and down essentially letting the participants know if this activity is worthwhile. Among chains, suppliers and consumers are drawn toward where they can get the most for their investments, and the efficiency of the whole network tends toward an optimum, where supplies of the most valuable products/services are increased at the expense of the supplies of the less valuable products/services, and demand shifts among options to those goods/services which are less costly to produce, all the while individuals seeking and realizing their own personal preferences among the options available (not all people make the same choices – this is not (necessarily) because they are being more or less rational or are more or less informed than each other) (PS ultimately, all economic value exists because of aesthetic value; there is no unqualified need; all needs are in order for something else).


    Of course, free markets are not perfect. There are externalities. As with biological evolution, there can be a tendency to reach local optima that are lower than other optima (a unique global maximum might not be definable – although it would be more easily done for the economy than for biological evolution, since there is no system-wide fitness, whereas there is a system-wide profitability in the economy). On the other hand, if their is some way to bridge the gap among optima, then there must be some different perspective (perhaps wherein the possibility of government participation is allowed, or with a different time horizon) from which the lower optima is not a local optima but is on a slope upward to the higher optima – from this perspective the higher optima may be shifted to a different position to acount for the benifits and costs of the allowed actions in this new perspective (including the policy design and enforcement costs, and the risk of corruption – the costs and benifits of policy options should be considered to find the most net benificial policy – some policy designs may be less corruptable than others and more efficiently designed and enforced) – the resulting optima might be higher (ie the law to drive on one side of the road creates an environment in which private actors have an incentive to choose one side over the other, and there is a net benifit to the whole thing; in general, choices can shape the options present for othere decisions – for example, a better choice can involve creating an environment where others (or the original decision maker) have better options or have to invest less decision-making resources to attain the same or higher level of accuracy – PS expenditure of the decision making resources are actually part of the choices, so it can be considered part of the same thing. An actor is part of the situation that determines the options and their values). Powerful large actors (monopolies) in the private sector might also be able to bridge such gaps and enact big changes, but there is a problem (perhas analogous to the corruption costs of public actions) of negotiating power – is it nonlinearly related to the investment to earn that power? – powerful businesses might act like dicatorships in their own right (in part via control over information and large decision making resources – although it is large decision making resources that may allow bridging of what would otherwise be gaps among optima?), unless labor and consumer groups form … when their are inequalities, the powerful might be able to keep the less powerful down (ie low pay for coal miners to maintain the supply of cheap labor?), … and there is a value (mitigation of psychological suffocation, having an enlightenned electorate and consumer) to having a commons (nature, some public property, fair-use concepts in copyright law, issues with the news business (for both the benifit or harm to either economic choices or political choices), which requires some amount of public control, and sometimes privatization can denude the value of an entity (nature is not nature if someone is actually in charge of it), or otherwise benificial privatization has technical hurdles (ie the inefficiency of making every road a toll road – whereas a tax on tires (scaled by tire durability) would be a proxy measure of road usage that could be utilized for public funding; also, the totalitarian nature (psychological/social/*moral* cost (ultimately all real costs and benifits are moral or else it wouldn’t matter – the policies and individual choices we should make are all based on maximizing the moral value, or with lack of perfect knowledge, the best approximation to the best probability of the highest moral value, etc. – (aesthetic value is the source and moral value is the end??)) of any perfectly fair and accurate health insurance (which would require monitoring of any activity that has some reproductive risk, as well as diet and excercise) – whereas a junk food tax (approximate solution since there is a diversity in the consequences of any such behavior) … well you get the idea) … and even when this is all optimized for the greatest good, it might not actually be so since people don’t start out with the same resources (especially if the rest of the system has not been perfected for some lead time up to birth, and for example, if the health insurance system doesn’t require (PS please note I am not advocating this design) advance pay on the part of the reproductive decision makers/risk takers for congenital/genetic risk factors so as to provide for those with related conditions in a fair manner if that is at all possible, etc, etc, etc, etc., and then there’s the estate tax or lack thereof…) and might not have the same internal reaction to equal externally-measured value (monetary or otherwise)(and other things)… Well I’ve gone through that before elsewhere.

    Also note – Within a free market, decisions are ultimately made at some point by people, not by the market itself. Both government and private actors have incentives (profit motive, vote motive) which can tend to lead to good decisions but are contingent on decision making resources of others (consumers/investors, electorate). Both governments and markets can be wasteful.

    The market economy is like an algorithm. It is a computer model of itself, and computations involve processing of price signals. There is learning.


    And I was going to start with some specifics about climate policy but now I have to take a break.

  48. 248
    L David Cooke says:


    Hey All,

    First the Energy Market is not a Free Market. Two, the Energy Market suppliers are over optumized. Three, if the goal is to remove fossil/mineral carbon then increasing the price without providing a Cost Margin alternative is untenible and evil. Fourth, the fact that there are none so blind they cannot see, is clearly a universal human condition and not reserved for the denialists….

    I guess, we are done here, thanks, Dr. Schmidt, Hank Roberts and the rest of the RC team, this has been a wonderful respite, just wish the C&T community could see the supply/demand curves based on price. (It takes gasoline to nearly reaching $7/gal. in 12 months without the promise of return before the tap can be shutoff. By that time society as we know it now will not exist. (Evidence: Cigarettes, At the beginning of regulation average price was $0.58/pack current average price per pack $5.00 % smokers quitting less then 70, reason most quitting they are dying off…)

    Dave Cooke

  49. 249
    Mark says:

    “Also note – Within a free market, decisions are ultimately made at some point by people, not by the market itself.”

    Also note: the free market requires an informed consumer and free action within the market.

    Canadian softwood lumber?
    Sugar Cane?
    Internet Gambling?

    And all the manipulation of the marketing department.

    Add that people have no time and you have no informed consumer.

  50. 250
    Patrick 027 says:

    L David Cooke-
    “the Energy Market is not a Free Market.”

    True, and obviously, in addition to enacting sensible policies, some other policies must be phased out or corrected (in energy and in agriculture, and in FEMA/natural hazard management), and there is the matter of monopolies and market manipulation. I wouldn’t disagree with that at all.

    “without providing a Cost Margin alternative ”

    But there are cost margin alternatives already, and they are destined to get better as a group with time.

    Mark –
    “Also note: the free market requires an informed consumer and free action within the market.”
    “Add that people have no time and you have no informed consumer.”

    The free market doesn’t require an informed consumer, but the performance will be improved with an informed consumer. Also with an informed producer. Large entities might tend not to have an issue with decision-making resources so far. Large volume businesses can know a lot. It is problematic for an individual consumer to suffiently inform his/herself about his/her choices.

    However: 1. within the free market, consumers can band together by way of consumer groups, and pool decision making resources, increasing the efficiency and accuracy of their decisions – analogous to the banding together of small businesses to negotiate with suppliers, and analogous to unionized labor.

    Nonetheless, 2. government can also play a role and I’m not against that – it could be argued that some forms of regulation are economically benificial, even to the businesses that are regulated, by boosting confidence in product quality and safety, readily disseminating information (food labels), and removing a question of how the workers are being treated. And there may be analogies for labor, etc.

    “IP laws like copyright and patent ensure there IS no free market.”

    Actually I disagree. People generally have to make investments of resources in order to come up with good ideas. Having good ideas should be encouraged according to their value. Just as zoning and urban planning, and regulation of pollution protect people’s (property and/or other) rights, copyright laws and patents protect people’s property rights.

    There are two qualifications on that:

    1. It may be sensible to put a time limit on intellectual property rights to the extent that, with the passage of time, it becomes probable that someone else would have stumbled onto the same thing or something very similar with less effort or maybe none at all.

    2. Because of the psychological, societal, political and economic benifits of an intellectual commons, limitations on intellectual property rights can be good. The concept of ‘fair use’ might be thought of as a safety valve.