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Movie review: SWITCH

Filed under: — raypierre @ 2 April 2013

This year, the Geological Society of America is rolling out their SWITCH Energy Awareness campaign . The centerpiece of the campaign is a documentary film, SWITCH, which purports to be about the need for a transformation in the world’s energy systems. Recently, I attended the Chicago premier of the film, presented as part of the Environmental Film Series of the Lutheran School of Theology. I had high hopes for this film. They were disappointed. Given the mismatch between what the movie promises and what it delivers, it would be more aptly titled, “BAIT AND SWITCH.”
Switch Still

The film is soporifically narrated by Scott Tinker , of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, who was also the major content advisor for the film. This a guy who has never met a fossil fuel he didn’t like. Dramatic footage of giant coal seams being merrily blasted to bits and carted off by hefty he-men driving 400 ton trucks are interspersed with wide-eyed kid-gloves interviews of energy-industry workers and executives in which Tinker looks like he’s overdosed on Quaaludes by way of preparation. There are a few segments on renewables thrown in, and even the token environmentalist or two, but the impression you get over most of the film is that only the fossil fuel guys have the right stuff.

Fossil fuels are unrelentingly portrayed as powerful, cool and desirable. Problems are swept under the rug, or given only the barest mention, mostly as a prelude to casual dismissal. Shots of the giant scar of an open pit coal mine in the Powder River basin cut over to shots of a credulous Tinker nodding like a bobble-headed doll while the foreman explains to him how it will all be all right because they saved the topsoil and will put it all back the way it was. Maybe that’s true, but given the intuitive implausibility of recreating a living, breathing ecosystem from the lunar lanscape the mining created, one would like to see at least a little probing of how well that all works out. Imagine Tinker coming upon a bunch of kids fiddling with a disemboweled flayed cat. This is how I imagine the interview would play out:

TINKER: Looks like you guys got yourself a dead cat there!
BOYS: Yep, did it ourselves. But dontcha worry, we saved the fur, and we’re gonna put everything back JUST THE WAY IT WAS!
TINKER: (glassy-eyed and nodding) Why, that’s just AMAZING!

Be that as it may, you never get to see or hear anything about mountain top removal coal mining (hint: they don’t save the mountaintop and put it back). On a tour of the Alberta Tar Sands, you get to see the insides of an antiseptic lab where happy technicians reverently pass around an adorable little flask of dilute bitumen (it looks so pure don’t you just want to drink it right down) while Tinker gapes in awe, but you never get to see the vast scale of environmental destruction wrought by tar sands mining outside. And while the film eventually gets around to loving natural gas, it skirts around the paradox that the tar sands consume a relatively low-carbon clean fuel (natural gas) that could be used directly as transportation fuel, to produce a dirty high carbon product (dilute bitumen and petcoke). Happy drillers on a mighty Shell offshore platform duly tsk-tsk about the big Oopsie! that was the Deepwater Horizon blowout, while assuring viewers that they’ve got that one licked, and golly no that couldn’t happen to us. Why, they even have Internet so they can get advice from the mainland if they need it!

Renewables, in contrast, are portrayed in a way that makes them seem wimpy — mainly by making inappropriate comparisons between small scale distributed power production sites and massive centralized power plants or oil production facilities. Tinker makes a lot of noise about the fact that the solar thermal site he visits in Spain was clouded over during the whole time they were filming it, which is probably meant to teach some lesson about intermittency, but instead leaves the viewer with a vague impression that renewables are not to be trusted. The film manages to say some nice things about the benefits of wind power in West Texas, and about Icelandic geothermal power, but on the whole the potential for renewable power comes off as fairly marginal, maybe the sort of thing little countries like Denmark or Iceland or Norway can rely on, but not big important places like us.

The truly fatal flaw of SWITCH, however, is that it never comes right out and explains why it is so critical for the world’s energy systems to switch off of fossil fuels, and why time is of the essence in making the switch. There are some oblique references to CO2 emissions, but no mention of the essentially irreversible effect of these emissions on climate, of the need to keep cumulative emissions under a trillion tonnes of carbon if we are to have a chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, or of how short the remaining time is before we hit this limit at the rate we are going. On the contrary, SWITCH positively revels in the idea that fossil fuels will never run out, given a high enough price (which, by the way, is probably not true). The clueless Washington Post review of SWITCH shows how utterly the film has failed in what should have been its prime educational mission. The reviewer writes “Why not continue to use coal and oil while developing other energy sources and technologies?” The answer, my friend, is that CO2 is forever, and its effects are not nearly so pretty as diamonds. But neither the reviewer, nor any other viewer, could be expected to learn this from SWITCH.

You begin to suspect something is really wrong when the first guy on screen to say something about climate is Richard Muller, of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project fame, who managed to convert himself from a climate change denialist to a lukewarmer by arduously and noisily rediscovering what every working climate scientist already knew to be true. What Muller has to say about climate is that burning fossil fuels will cause the Earth to warm by about 2 degrees (“if the calculations are right”), but it’s going to be too expensive to stop it so we’ll just learn to live with it. There are so many things wrong with Muller’s statement that I hardly know where to begin. First, it is far from clear that a 2 degree warmer world is one that we can adapt to, or that the damages caused by such a climate would not overwhelm the costs of keeping it from happening in the first place. Second, if climate sensitivity is at the high end of the IPCC range or even beyond, we could be facing far greater than 2 degrees of warming even if we hold the line at cumulative emissions of a trillion tonnes of carbon. Third, even if climate sensitivity is at the middle of the IPCC range, that 2 degree figure assumes that we hold the line at burning one trillion tonnes of carbon (and we’re already halfway there). There are probably enough economically recoverable fossil fuels to go way beyond a trillion tonnes, which would take us to truly scary territory, especially in conjunction with high climate sensitivity. It gets worse once you realize that Muller’s cheery dismissal of the problem is essentially all you’re going to hear about the connection between fossil fuel burning and climate disruption. OK, so if the producer’s aim is for this film to play well in Nebraska, you can understand why he might not have wanted Tinker to interview somebody like Jim Hansen who’s been on the front lines of the climate wars and spent time in pokey for it, but how about Susan Solomon or Isaac Held, or Myles Allen or Richard Alley? How about any real climate scientist at all who could give an honest appraisal of what the world is going to be like if we continue unrestrained burning of fossil fuels — especially if fossil fuels never run out, as this film so cheerily predicts.

SWITCH is made to appeal to fans of an “all of the above” energy strategy, but it never confronts the fact that if we want to preserve a livable climate, “all” simply cannot include continued (let alone expanded) use of fossil fuels for very much longer. The biggest challenge we face is not learning how to extract every last scrap of fossil fuel, but learning how to leave most of it in the ground. This fault pervades every nook and cranny of the film. When discussing carbon capture and storage (CCS), an interviewee quite rightly declares that the only clean coal would be coal burned with CCS; Tinker goes on to lament that we could make coal clean, but it’s too expensive so we won’t do it. The only conclusion to be drawn from this would be that in that case coal has to be crossed off the energy menu. But instead Tinker moves on without ever giving a thought to this discomforting conclusion. And it is not very comforting to hear Steve Koonin (former chief scientist for BP/Amoco and currently Obama’s Undersecretary of Energy) and Ernest Moniz (head of MIT’s energy program, Obama’s pick to head the DOE, and a major natural gas booster) spend so much time on screen defending fossil fuels. “It can’t be all bad,” says Koonin, in reference to coal. Well, actually, from here on in, coal is all bad, and the less of it anybody burns, the better.

The segment on the developing world fails because it never addresses the question of what pattern of development could sustainably provide a decent standard of living for the worlds’ poor. Instead, in essence, it asks the question of what it would take to remake the world in Scott Tinker’s image — with all the energy usage that entails. In fact, you never get to see anybody but Tinker’s family using energy in their home, so you get no impression of how much access to a mere 200 watts of reliable power could transform the lives of poor Indians or Africans. At the outset of the film, Tinker arrogantly sets up his own energy consumption in his life as a Texas professor driving his oversized car from his sprawling house in the sprawling suburbs to wherever he is going in the course of his day as the measure of the energy required to support “a person” throughout the rest of the film. SWITCH shows no awareness that living in cities in and of itself leads to a lower carbon footprint, and that sound urban planning can multiply this advantage. This is an especially glaring omission, since most of the world’s people now live in cities, and the proportion is set to increase in the future. SWITCH never tells you that China could attain the standard of living of France without increasing its emissions at all, just by increasing the carbon efficiency of its economy to the current French level; nor does it tell you about China’s growing efforts in that direction, including most recently, a carbon tax. What SWITCH teaches you about the developing world is: They’re all gonna want cars and big houses like us, and they won’t go low-carbon because it’s too expensive, they’ll never pay for it and we won’t pay for them to do it either, so their emissions will soon swamp ours and nothing we do to reduce our own emissions will make much difference. It’s pretty much the standard “But … China!” argument promulgated by opponents of action to protect our climate. The fact that we will all pay for the consequences of a wrecked climate never figures into any of the costs mentioned in this movie.

SWITCH plays Pollyanna on energy technologies to such an extent that I found it off-putting even when the film was advocating things I basically agree with. I think cheap, fracked natural gas has made a useful contribution to reducing the growth rate of US CO2 emissions, but I cringe when SWITCH parrots the industry-sponsored myth that we have a sure 100 year supply of natural gas (we don’t ). Further, as Michael Levi’s cogent study points out, natural gas has at best a very short-lived role as a bridge fuel. Moreover, if cheap natural gas kills off renewables and next generation nuclear, it is not only a short bridge, but a bridge to nowhere. I think expansion of nuclear energy has an essential role to play in decarbonizing our energy supply, and I greatly admire the success France has had with their transition to nuclear electricity. But I doubt I would have found the credulous interviews with American and French nuclear workers particularly reassuring if I weren’t already familiar with the issues from other sources. Even the segment on Norwegian hydropower, with which SWITCH auspiciously opens, manages to give the false impression that most Nordic hydropower is free-run hydro with a relatively light footprint on the environment; In fact, Norwegian and Swedish hydropower rely on a massive network of dams and reservoirs which have disrupted the lives of indigenous peoples killed off salmon runs, and destroyed whole ecosystems. When the Suorva dam created Akkajaure in Northern Sweden, it drowned a biologically diverse chain of lakes and wetlands and turned off what used to be Europe’s largest waterfall.There is no question that hydropower is an important component of a carbon-free energy supply, but it is not helpful to sweep its environmental costs under the rug. Hydropower provides an example of the kind of difficult choice about conflicting environmental goods that global warming forces upon us. Given the facts, some of us might prefer a few more nukes to a few more Suorvas.

Way at the end of the film Tinker finally gets around to the benefits of energy conservation, but by then it’s too late. The message has already gotten through that we’re really good at fossil energy so why bother, especially since the developing world is going to burn them up anyway? None of the incomprehensible moving lines on graphs which are supposed to make the case for the importance of conservation make a dent in this impression. Tinker’s big ideas about conservation seem laughably puny: a new water heater, a bit of attic insulation, and driving his kids to school in … golf carts! One wonders what’s wrong with his kids, or his neighborhood, that they can’t walk or ride their bikes.

It would be easy to shrug off this film if it were just a matter of another hack with a minicam following Bjorn Lomborg around, but this has the backing of the GSA. The GSA has its share of members in the fossil fuel industries, but it is a respectable scientifically sound organization, which has taken a decent position on global warming. The GSA has not only blessed the film with its prestige, but is heavily promoting it as the anchor of its energy awareness campaign, with solicitation for Inconvenient Truth style “ambassadors” to promote the film’s agenda, and even a K-12 educational component. I think I do understand how the film took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. If you want to change minds and touch the heartstrings of a new audience rather than just preaching to the choir, it is probably more effective to find common ground in talking about solutions rather than by scaring the pants off people by talking about the scary consequences of global warming. I’m entirely sympathetic to this approach. But there’s a difference between positive messaging and losing sight of the nature of the problem that needs to be solved, to the point that one even loses sight of the message that needs to be conveyed. That is where SWITCH not only takes a wrong turn, but drives right off the cliff.

The GSA ought to distance itself from this fiasco. Schools should avoid it like the plague. Without being kept on life-support by the GSA, the film is so boring it will probably die a natural death. This film is a lot like those “duck and cover” movies that I saw as a kid, from which I learned that I could survive a nuclear strike if I put my head down against the lockers and covered up with a winter coat (just hope The Bomb doesn’t get dropped in summer). The message of SWITCH is the climate equivalent of the infamous quote by T.K. Jones, Reagan’s civil defense planner, that when it comes to nuclear war “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it” . In the case of SWITCH, the message that gets across is that if we keep figuring out ever more ingenious ways of extracting fossil fuels, and maybe burn more natural gas, insulate our attics and drive our kids to school in golf carts, everything’s gonna be OK. We have a right to expect better from the GSA, and the sooner SWITCH disappears from the public discourse, the better.

255 Responses to “Movie review: SWITCH”

  1. 151
    Chris Korda says:

    Raypierre @66

    Regarding your concern about industry, I think that to conclude industry can do nothing right is as bad a mistake as the right makes when they conclude that government is always the enemy and can do nothing right.

    I never said that industry “can do nothing right”, and it’s unclear how you jumped to this conclusion. My criticism was directed at plutocrats who consume an overwhelming and ever-increasing share of earth’s resources, and shamelessly rob future generations–presumably including their own descendants–of a hospitable planet. It’s inadequate to say that they’re blinded by greed; their neurotic obsession with self-enrichment is quasi-religious and sociopathic*. Much of the plutocracy’s wealth comes from extractive industries, particularly fossil fuels, hence the vast sums of money being poured into climate denial, miseducation, and greenwash. One might hope that given sufficient political will, they could be pressed into the service of more constructive goals. More rational and altruistic policies have arguably prevailed in the past–e.g. in the aftermath of WWII, when American public schools were the envy of the world, and the top tax bracket was as high as 91%–but such episodes are mere punctuation in a litany of cruelty and waste. We don’t have time to sink to the depths of the Gilded Age or Weimar Germany before regaining our moral compass.

    *”Confronted with a high probability of environmental catastrophe on Earth, the richest people on the planet–people who systematically overeat and who air-condition the outdoor forecourts of gas stations–are unwilling to wait an extra four months to increase their incomes by 40 percent. Understood this way, the growth fetish appears to be a form of madness.” (Clive Hamilton, “Growth Fetish”, p 183)

  2. 152
    Rich Creager says:

    The comment string is into triple digits so as usual the discussion is degenerating- time to sum up: Adding all of the world’s needs for transportation and heating, along with a relentlessly growing cooling demand, to the current electricity load on the grid, and supplying it all with non-carbon sources, is the requirement. This within a few decades. Some type of base load supply must be chosen for those parts of the world where hydro is unavailable, an ever increasing area since water supply conflicts are widely the first pain of climate change. The realistic choices for base load appear to begin and end with nuclear. Fossil fuel with carbon capture has yet to be invented, much less demonstrated. Renewables with energy storage likewise. Nuclear has drawbacks everyone recognizes. But you can get electrons out steadily without emitting CO2, making it unique among known technologies. So for a time it will be a necessary evil. Hope we start in time.

  3. 153
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    82 Robert: You profess to be better qualified than Ray Pierre on this issue do you Robert??
    You are indeed an optimist, maybe a blind one but an optimist none the less.
    So if we are in the process of switching energy sources by 2050 then we can expect to see a theoreoretical reduction in CO2 maybe by 2100? Umm…what you may have overlooked is the additional simultaneous positive feedback forcing to the climatic system within this time frame. Ice albedo..the arctic would by them be ice free for the majority of the year, methane from the ocean beds would be well and truly building up steam. The tundra in an advanced state of thaw. Millions more arces of rainforest cut down for housing or fuel. Around 8-10 billion people on this little planet vying desperately to support their struggling families. So even if you might get some reduction in CO2,NO&CH4 from alternate sources of fuel all this will be completely swamped into insignificance by the natural and appropriately drastic forces of nature/gaia in an attempt to rid itself of it’s No1!.
    Still I like your optimism.

  4. 154
    SecularAnimist says:

    raypierre wrote: “I still think the climate that could be caused by unrestrained CO2 emissions is far more scary than any fears nuclear energy could conceivably awaken.”

    Fortunately, our choices are not limited to “unrestrained CO2 emissions” or the legitimate “fears” that would quite rightly be “awakened” by a massive world-wide expansion of nuclear power.

  5. 155
    Chris Dudley says:

    raypierre (#149),

    Actually, you seem to be arguing from fear, something that is known to impair clear thinking. My interest in contacting you here at realclimate was to discuss the implications of the Kombayashi–Ingersoll limit on Hansen’s published assertion that the Venus Syndrome was a dead certainty should all fossil carbon be burned. I never got you to read the relevant chapter in his book even though the book is available at the University of Chicago library. Nevertheless, we did get to the point where a predominantly water vapor atmosphere with say ten atmospheres of surface pressure might be a reasonable result of Hansen’s assumptions regarding the size of available carbon pools. We were not agreed on how permanent that condition would be. You argued that reactions leading to geological sequestration of carbon ran faster at higher temperature and thus carbon dioxide would be drawn down and water vapor would re-condense. I suggested that since those reactions use wet chemistry and precipitation might not reach the surface (where the atmosphere would be dry steam), fresh emissions from volcanism might keep up with those reactions.

    As they say, it is better to be lucky than competent. Your recent public statements seem to indicate that you consider Hansen to be both lucky and competent. I’d say the jury is still out on the Venus Syndrome. Even lacking a full runaway, a rather transformed atmosphere could be possible.

    Regarding your fear inspired argument that we must chose the lesser of two evils when it comes to nuclear power you may take comfort that a rational analysis indicates that nuclear power offers a path to larger emissions than other available choices owing to opportunity cost. Your library also has “Reinventing Fire” by Amory Lovins available for checkout. Fire

    You will see that a faster cheaper path is available for emissions reductions so that regarding climate, nuclear power is the wrong choice.

    There are safety risks involved in nuclear power. And these do impinge on climate concerns indirectly. Germany, for example, is now burning more coal owing to the recent nuclear accident in Japan while Japan is burning more natural gas. A large and deadly accident in the US would bring a number of coal power plants out of retirement. An accident in France might cause the same thing in France’s neighbor countries. Such accidents appear to be inevitable given our habit of allowing so many near misses.

    But, even should the safety issue be resolved, cost alone makes nuclear power a climate problem rather than a climate solution.

  6. 156
    Chris Dudley says:

    The link for Lovins’ book did not work. Try this:

    Professors may have options to have library books delivered to their offices.

  7. 157
    Chris Dudley says:

    Pete (#139),

    I said close them, not move them. I doubt moving would work since the sites available with adequate cooling water are limited, particularly considering how sea level rise makes tidal areas untenable, and used reactor vessels are too radioactive to move rapidly.

    The Price-Anderson risk to the solvency of the US government comes from the neighborhoods of power plants. Those in rural/agricultural regions might be insurable using the private sector. Repealing Price-Anderson would identify those power plants which could obtain private insurance.

  8. 158
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rich Creager wrote: “… the discussion is degenerating- time to sum up”

    Great! Have at it.

    Rich Creager wrote: “Adding all of the world’s needs for transportation and heating, along with a relentlessly growing cooling demand, to the current electricity load on the grid …”

    How about subtracting the MORE THAN HALF of all US energy production that is wasted from those “needs”?

    How about RMI’s scenario to transform the US electric grid so that rather than US electricity demand growing 1 percent per year per EIA projections, “projected efficiency gains cut nationwide demand by 1 percent each year, even with the added demand from 150 million electric vehicles”.

    Rich Creager wrote: “Some type of base load supply must be chosen for those parts of the world where hydro is unavailable …”

    Not true. There are better (i.e. cheaper, faster, cleaner, safer, more sustainable) ways to provide plentiful electricity to the millions of people in the developing world who currently lack it than building “base load” power stations and the grids to distribute their electricity — principally, cheap, mass-produced, highly-distributed photovoltaics.

    And in the developed world, both utility-scale and distributed solar and wind are making base load power generation increasingly less important (not to mention less profitable).

    Rich Creager wrote: “The realistic choices for base load appear to begin and end with nuclear. Fossil fuel with carbon capture has yet to be invented, much less demonstrated. Renewables with energy storage likewise.”

    As for carbon capture, that is correct.

    As for the rest — again, not true.

    Multiple studies in both Europe and the USA have demonstrated that a diverse, regional portfolio of renewable energy sources, managed through a smart grid, can provide 24×7 power that is AT LEAST as reliable as nuclear or coal — without storage.

    As for saying that renewables with storage have “yet to be invented, much less demonstrated”, that’s just plain wrong. Several utility-scale concentrating solar thermal power plants with thermal storage are up and running already, in the US and Spain. Utility-scale battery storage is a commercially available technology today.

    We have plenty of options for storing energy, including electro-chemical (batteries), thermal, and kinetic energy (compressed air, flywheels, pumped-hydro) — all of which are already quite advanced and are being rapidly developed (especially battery technologies).

    Rich Creager wrote: “Nuclear has drawbacks everyone recognizes. But you can get electrons out steadily without emitting CO2, making it unique among known technologies.”

    Again, that’s simply not true. You can “get electrons out steadily without emitting CO2” from ALL of today’s mature, powerful renewable energy technologies, some of which can provide reliable base 24×7 load power by themselves (e.g CSP with thermal storage), and/or by integrating a diverse array of intermittent sources through a local or regional grid.

    Rich Creager wrote: “So for a time it will be a necessary evil.”

    In my view, nuclear power is already a “necessary evil” in as much as the safety of the USA’s existing, aging nuclear power plants is a very real concern. I see no reason to extend the time in which it will be so, by unnecessarily building more nuclear power plants.

  9. 159
    Chris Dudley says:

    quokka (#149),

    You make the error of not considering the vast environmental damage such a mining effort would cause. Nuke nuts are quite amusing. They hammer on hydro power for using vast areas of land, even though most of these would be used for flood control in any case, yet they want to invoke the magic of uranium from sea water which would stop the Gulf Stream.

  10. 160
    Hank Roberts says:

    > stop the Gulf Stream

    Post your citations, please, gentlemen.
    Tell us why you think what you think.
    Citations to support your claims make you credible.
    Or not.
    Citations to support your claims respect the conversation.
    Or not.
    Point to your own publications, if they’re not easy to find,
    or if you’re not stating your own work, whose you trust.

  11. 161
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chris Dudley wrote: “Germany, for example, is now burning more coal owing to the recent nuclear accident in Japan …”

    Just barely more, and total fossil fuel use is slightly down. The rapid growth of renewables combined with reduced demand have more than compensated for the nuclear power shutdowns, enabling Germany to export more electricity than ever.

    According to German law professor Karl-Friedrich Lenz, citing “the latest data release on electricity generation in Germany from 1990 to 2012 from Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen”:

    There are some who … assert that switching off German nuclear plants has lead to a massive increase in coal generation, while in the real world coal use was at 117 TWh in 2010 and 118 in 2012, which is just statistical noise […]

    Renewable energy is replacing nuclear just fine, thank you, exactly as the energy transition policy wanted.

    In some detail: Fossil fuel (all flavors) was at 358.1 in 2010 and is essentially unchanged at 356 in 2012.

    Nuclear is down to 99 in 2012, from 140.6 in 2010. Nuclear is in decline, exactly as expected and wanted by all parties who supported the unanimous vote to do this in 2011. The amount of decline is 41.6 in two years.

    And the biggest chunk of that decline is compensated by a rise of renewable generation from 103.3 in 2010 to 135.0 in 2012, in a year with poor wind generation. That’s a rise of 31.7, which compensates most of the deficit left by phasing out nuclear.

    That leaves about 10 TWh of not compensated deficit, but actually consumption has gone down by more than that in these two years. 2010 had 610.9 of in country consumption, 2012 only 594, which means savings of 16.9, and explains that Germany has exported (on balance) more than ever last year.

    So, again, the big picture is that nuclear is declining, that renewable energy is replacing that deficit, and that everything is progressing exactly as it was supposed to do.

    Meanwhile, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph:

    Germany exported more electricity to neighbouring countries than it imported last year despite a government decision to scrap nuclear power in favour of an ambitious drive towards renewable energy.

    Figures just published appeared to vindicate Germany’s clean energy revolution, showing that the country’s electricity surplus had nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2012.

    [Response: But think how much Germany’s carbon emissions would have gone down if they had done all that impressive stuff with renewables and demand, but retired coal plants instead of retiring nuclear power. –raypierre]

  12. 162
    SecularAnimist says:

    Raypierre wrote: “But think how much Germany’s carbon emissions would have gone down if they had done all that impressive stuff with renewables and demand, but retired coal plants instead of retiring nuclear power.”

    I agree that shutting down coal-fired power plants is and ought to be a much more urgent priority than shutting down existing nuclear power plants.

    Having said that, I can certainly understand how people living within the evacuation zone of particularly troubled or at-risk nuclear power plants might feel that shutting down those particular power plants is their top priority.

    However, that’s an entirely different matter than building hundreds MORE nuclear power plants.

  13. 163
    SecularAnimist says:

    Yet another scenario for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — in the nation which currently has the highest per capita emissions of any developed nation:

    Study: Australian carbon tax could mean 100 percent renewables by 2030
    By Ian Steadman
    08 April 13

  14. 164
    Chris Dudley says:

    SA (#161),

    I agree that the Germans are doing a good job on that. Countries that have it together on energy are likely to phase out nuclear power. Japan and France are turning away. More backwards countries like Iran, China and India seem enamored for now.

  15. 165
    Chris Colose says:

    Chris Dudley-

    I have nothing to add to the energy discussion, but I don’t understand your obsessive fears with runaway greenhouses.

    There are more rational concerns if we triple or quadruple CO2 concentrations at higher-end sensitivities, like 1) We don’t really understand the Pliocene climate, which looks quite a bit different today at similar boundary conditions. Is there some sort of “switch” in the climate system that changes the nature of the variability, or the behavior of the General Circulation? 2) Do we do something to wipe out summer sea ice extent in the Arctic or the Amazon rainforest? 3) Something like that outlined in Sherwood and Huber that was mentioned before– if the wet bulb temperature exceeds ~35 C the human body doesn’t get rid of the minimum 100 W of heat it generates — this also assumes a person is in strong, doused with water, naked, and not working. That could pose problems for people without accessibility to air conditioning in currently warm climates. I should note though that at least one climate model (work in progress) produces drier continents than what Sherwood and Huber expected, so the wet bulb is colder.

  16. 166
    Chris Dudley says:

    Hank (#160),

    You could have figured that one out in your head. Gulf Stream flow is 30 sverdrups. 1 sverdrup is needed at 100% uranium absorption efficiency to supply about 16% of current electricity demand. So, at 3 times current demand and an optimistic 10% efficiency that is about 180 sverdrup needed, much less that the Gulf Stream can supply.

  17. 167
    Chris Dudley says:

    Chris (#165),

    If you look at fig. 30 in Hansen’s book, he is seeing signs of runaway at four doublings, not two. You really have work to get at that much fossil fuel. Coal seams a few inches thick, low quality oil shale, tarsands etc. And all the soil carbon would be a part of it too I think. But, ultra-cheap renewable energy would let you get at that stuff if you have a taste for gas and oil as we do. There is no need for the extracted carbon to provide positive energy. It need only provide convenient energy. So, on an economic basis, Hansen’s scenario is not impossible.

  18. 168
    David B. Benson says:

    And then there is paleodata:
    We had better stay far short of this.

  19. 169
    quokka says:

    #163 SecularAnimist wrote

    “Yet another scenario for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — in the nation which currently has the highest per capita emissions of any developed nation:”

    I’d be extremely surprised if that happens. I fully expect we will still be churning out substantial quantities of GHGs in the power sector in 2030. And buying foreign carbon offsets to soothe our collective conscience.

    More interesting is the forthcoming report that the Federal government has instructed the AEMO (Australian Electricity Management Office) to produce on the feasibility of 2030 and 2050 all renewables scenarios. It will be a lot more interesting because it comes from a body that can lay some claim to independence, is accountable and has responsibility for ensuring the operation of an electricity grid that actually works properly. Importantly, such a report will be much more likely to influence policy.

    AEMO has farmed out some of the work to the CSIRO (good thing). I don’t have the reference handy, but one of CSIRO papers was a literature survey of the numerous all renewables scenarios. It found them all lacking with many of the deficiencies common to them all. It concluded that the field is still immature with more work to be done. It’s a conclusion that shouldn’t really come as a surprise at all. Ascribing a certainty to this sort of work that doesn’t really exist, just because such scenarios exclude nuclear power really does nothing to hasten emissions reductions.

    One of the inputs AEMO will use is the Australian government’s Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics 2012 Australian Energy Technology Assessment. A summary chart of their projected 2030 LCOE estimates for the potentially available generation techologies is here:

    It includes nuclear which they estimate to be very cost competitive.

    CSIRO has also produced a simple online modelling tool that includes BREEs cost estimates:

    All scenarios that include nuclear power lead to a faster reduction of emissions and a lower final level by 2050. They also have some small cost advantages, but possibly not that significant in view of uncertainties.

    Pretending that there is certainty in these all renewables scenarios that doesn’t exist in reality has far more to do with stopping nuclear power than stopping climate change.

    [Response: I also wonder whether Australia intends to start applying a carbon tax to exported coal. Australia exports massive amounts of coal to China, and given the coal mine expansion already under contract, this is set to increase in the coming years. Fair carbon accounting would require this exported carbon to be taxed at at least the same rate as domestic carbon, with the cost presumably being passed on to the buyer of the coal. Actually, given the energy inefficiency of the Chinese economy relative to Australia, there would be an argument for taxing it at a higher rather than applied to domestic usage. –raypierre]

  20. 170
    David B. Benson says:

    The all renewable scenarios I’ve seen lack credibility. A reliable, on-demand power grid requires controlability. To control it requires having dispatachable generators which can vary the power supplied to meet the load.

    Here I give a simplified analysis of the crux of the engineering issue. Let the demand be D, the power supplied by renewables be R. For simplicity the renewable are on a ‘must take’ basis (which is almost correct for Bonneville Power Authority but a bit less so for Spain). Let P be the power supplied by the dispatchable generators. As supply must always equal demand (or else the grid collapses) we have

    P + R = D

    For which the net load seen by the dispatchable generators is

    P = DR

    and this sometimes leads to very high ramp rates for the dispatchable units. The traditional ramp rate is 5%/minute which is adequate for almost all demand profiles, sans renewables. However, once again look at
    for the mornings of Apr03 & Apr 09. Here the wind is decreasing at the same time the demand is picking up. This leads to higher than usual ramp rates, which is hard on equipment and causes early wearout. It also makes the control problem more difficult.

    Now if there are no dispatchable generators, P=0, so net renewable generation must always be in balance with demand. Irrespective of the cost of such a grid (very, very high) I have yet to see a credible study which shows it is possible at all with reliability at least as high as the rather undemanding FERC requirement.

    [Response: There’s no way around the need for power storage in the not-so-long run. Natural gas provides backup up to a point, but as Michael Levi’s analysis shows, it doesn’t get you very far along towards a decarbonized economy. So either there will need to be enough storage plus excess renewable capacity to keep it charged, or we’ll need storage so that baseload power from nuclear (feasible) or coal with CCS (uncertain feasibility) can be stored and dispatched. In addition to other possibilities that have been mentioned, it’s possible that the best use of hydrogen would be not as vehicle fuel, but as a way of stockpiling energy for later dispatch via fuel cells. –raypierre]

  21. 171
    Chris Dudley says:

    raypierre (#170),

    Imagine you owned a Leaf and drove it pretty hard, using 70% of its range every day for ten years. Well, after that ten years, you’d be using about 90% of the range for your commute. The battery performance has degraded. Not enough cushion. So, you replace that battery pack.

    What happens to that still very rugged but just below transportation grade battery? It gets another fifteen years of use degrading further but in a stationary application with close attention to battery life management.

    So, what happens if all US commuter transportation goes electric? We get enough storage to hold half a days worth of non-transportation US power consumption from the used batteries, no V2G, just aftermarket batteries. Based on a figure in Lovins’ book, all that storage should be in place around 2034 or so. Pretty much all the storage you could need arrives right on time pretty much for free. The batteries will be made in any case and they won’t be recycled while they still have a use.

    I think you should reconsider your use of the word “excess” here. If renewable capacity is charging storage, it is not excess capacity, it is capacity that is charging storage. It is needed capacity.

    [Response: The word “excess” clearly only meant enough capacity in excess of demand (on average) to store enough power to meet peak demand. I don’t see what your problem is. But I am sympathetic to the utility of used battery banks for meaningful storage. An off-grid buddy in New Zealand runs his mini-hydro and photovoltaic system with a battery bank that was retired from a telephone switching exchange. He pretty much runs his life on two hundred watts of electricity (when everything is working well) and the times I’ve stayed with him and his family make me wonder what-all extra I’m getting out of my kilowatt of usage (wind powered though it is). –raypierre]

  22. 172
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    raypierre writes,

    … I also wonder whether Australia intends to start applying a carbon tax to exported coal. Australia exports massive amounts of coal to China …

    and presumably Australian coal mining companies make massive amounts of money doing this, with the Australian government getting a share by several different mechanisms.

    Are you saying the Australian government should get a larger share, so as to increase its motivation to curtail the practice?

  23. 173
    Chris Dudley says:

    raypierre (#171),

    Still a quibble. If you have the capacity to meet average demand, you don’t need much more, just what is needed to cover the loss in round trip storage.

    Because renewables are going to be so inexpensive (scary in one way because that makes junk fossil fuels more accessible) I expect profligate use may expand. Let us hope it is for things like space catapults or art or atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reduction rather than cooking the last drops of oil from the Earth’s surface.

  24. 174
    Chris Dudley says:

    G.R.L. Cowan (#171),

    An interesting point. The oil exporter’s cartel, which has a number of members with national oil companies, manages to charge a large effective export duty by keeping the markets “well supplied” with $100/barrel oil that costs them perhaps $15/barrel to produce. The effect on demand has been noticeable but not terribly large so profits are probably maximized. A coal exporter’s cartel might manage a similar feat though it might need to join with a natural gas exporter’s cartel to avoid substitution and coal price collapse similar to what we are seeing domestically.

    An advantage to such arrangements is that they only need cooperation among a limited number of countries. For climate, a disadvantage is that such efforts encourage desperate resource extraction among importers such as Arctic or deep water oil drilling or fracking since the artificially high price makes these efforts profitable as well. Larger low quality carbon pools are tapped, likely leading to larger emissions overall.

    I suspect that Australia, in the area of duties and tariffs, would do better to declare China responsible for shifting us into the dangerous climate regime that has caused so much damage there and charge punitive tariffs on China’s imports to Australia to recoup the losses.

  25. 175
    flxible says:

    “Are you saying the Australian government should get a larger share, so as to increase its motivation to curtail the practice?”

    No, he’s saying Australia should make exported coal more expensive to increase Chinas motivation to ‘curtail the practice’. Yes, the export of fossil fuels provides income for a number of governments, including Saudi Arabia and Canada, those countries are going to need to adapt just as much as importing countries.

    CAPTCHA says ‘Use ktherene’ :)

  26. 176
    Hank Roberts says:

    > I suspect that Australia … would do
    > better to declare China responsible

    There’s your problem.
    It’s like you think they’re on different planets.

  27. 177
    SecularAnimist says:

    David B. Benson wrote: “The all renewable scenarios I’ve seen lack credibility.”

    Which scenarios, and specifically in what way did they lack “credibility”?

    David B. Benson wrote: “A reliable, on-demand power grid requires controlability.”

    With all due respect, that comment and your subsequent “simplified analysis” suggest to me that you are not well-informed about the work already being done, today, on integrating large amounts of renewable energy sources into the grid.

    It’s important to keep in mind that VERY large amounts of distributed photovoltaics can be deployed with no worries about integrating them into the grid — because virtually all the electricity they produce is used on-site, which the grid sees as simply a dramatic reduction in demand (typically during peak demand periods).

    Of course, while big reductions in peak demand are not a problem for grid operators, they are a problem for large, centralized electricity generators who want to sell their gigawatts at a profit.

  28. 178
    James Wimberley says:

    The killer objection to relying on nuclear power is that it’s an expensive distraction. It’s the only energy technology with a negative learning curve, as documented by Arnulf Grubler. As a result of this more than of the widely spaced but large-scale accidents, the number of reactor starts worldwide is not keeping pace with shutdowns of old reactors from an aging park, and total capacity has flatlined. Nuclear power plants take on average 13 years to build, some much longer. You can add a gigawatt of solar in months – China is going from 500 MW in 2010 to 15 GW in 2015.

    Nuclear plants are paradigmatic baseload plants, a model that cheap and plentiful wind and solar has made obsolete, for coal as well; they need complementing with quickly despatchable power, from storage, hydro, geothermal or gas.

    Nuclear is simply not worth fighting for.

  29. 179
    Hank Roberts says:

    > He pretty much runs his life on two hundred watts

    More good examples ought to be published somewhere.
    But don’t forget one big benefit to ‘wasting’ heat — keeping a building dry enough not to rot, which the old combustion furnaces did. The first round of energy conservation — tight buildings, little air exchange — gave us humidity problems not well solved yet, maybe impossibly expensive and technically difficult to solve. Building science: (PDF)

    Contractors I’ve known as friends for years, and the local building inspector, have told me they’ve seen these problems develop in old buildings when cavity insulation and vapor barriers were added without also adding dehumidification that requires using energy. If we “save energy” by prematurely rotting out wooden buildings, it’s a net loss.

    Get a cheap humidity and temperature data logger (e.g.) and watch what happens in a building — particularly attic and basement space and inside wall cavities if you have access to those, where cold walls can condense moisture from inside air– for a whileas outside temperature changes. Then look at the temp/humidity conditions for dry rot in wood.

    This ain’t simple yet.

  30. 180
    SecularAnimist says:

    James Wimberly wrote: “Nuclear plants are paradigmatic baseload plants, a model that cheap and plentiful wind and solar has made obsolete, for coal as well …”


    Here are a couple of articles about the impact that the rapid growth of distributed renewable energy is already having on the big baseload electricity producers:

    Analysis: Renewables turn utilities into dinosaurs of the energy world
    By Geert De Clercq
    March 8, 2013

    Every new solar panel installed on European rooftops chips away at power utilities’ centralized production model. Unless they reinvent themselves soon, these giants risk becoming the dinosaurs of the energy market.

    The industry faces drastic change as renewable energy turns consumers into producers and hollows out the dominance of utilities. With their stocks at decade lows and a millstone of debt around their necks, Europe’s utilities have little margin for error.

    In Germany, where 22 percent of its electricity came from renewable sources in 2012, the big four utilities … are nearly absent in this new sector.

    Of the 71 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity installed at the end of 2011, the four owned just 7 percent, environment ministry data show … Individuals owned 40 percent of renewables capacity, energy niche players 14 percent, farmers 11 percent, various energy-intensive industrial companies 9 percent, and financial companies 11 percent. Small regional utilities and international utilities owned another 7 percent.

    Moody’s: Wind and solar power will continue to erode thermal generators’ credit quality
    Moody’s Investors Service
    November 6, 2012

    Further expected increases in renewable energy will continue to erode the credit quality of European thermal generation companies in the near to medium term …

    Large increases in renewables have had a profound negative impact on power prices and the competitiveness of thermal generation companies in Europe … What were once considered stable companies have seen their business models severely disrupted and we expect steadily rising levels of renewable energy output to further affect European utilities’ creditworthiness …

    Moody’s cautions that storage does have the potential to further negatively affect peak power prices and would increase the competitiveness of renewables — a credit negative for thermal generators.

  31. 181
    Chris Dudley says:


    If we did not share a planet then it would not matter to other countries that China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter and plans to increase its emissions. One country increasing coal export duties won’t get them to reconsider their trajectory but holding them financially responsible for the damage they do might help. Polluter pays. Think a little harder and you’ll get it.

    [Response: The main reason to charge export duties on coal, for a country like Australia that has a carbon tax, is to prevent “leakage.” If there is no such export duty, then you come out ahead economically by exporting the coal to a country without a carbon tax (or with a lower carbon tax) and buying back manufactured goods. An additional virtue of the export duty is that it makes the coal more expensive for the end user, in this case China. It seems bizarre to me that China spends money on importing Australian coal rather than spending money on making their grotesquely energy-inefficient economy more efficient. Increasing the price of coal tilts the decision towards investment in efficiency. For some fossil fuels, market forces alone drive up the price to the point where conservation becomes more attractive, but as somebody noted, this also increases the profit to be made by extracting more of the resource. Increasing the price with a carbon tax avoids that trap. –raypierre]

  32. 182
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Increasing the price of coal tilts the decision
    > towards investment in efficiency.

    That’s thinking a little harder, and clearer.

    Regrettably Australia’s probably thinking the US will undercut their price if they do tax exported coal appropriately. And the US does “… come out ahead economically by exporting the coal … and buying back manufactured goods.” The US exported its air pollution; now it’s Chinese dying for producing our crap instead of US citizens.

    The US is at war with the world on this issue.

  33. 183
    Hank Roberts says:

    And in all seriousness — if the US had exported its consumer protections, health rules, pollution rules, and worker protections along with its technology, China wouldn’t have industrialized as quickly — nor done nearly as much damage to China. They’ve now spread the lead and mercury pollution from burning coal and careless metalwork all over China.

    It’s like the US thought it was a horse race and China needed to have all the toxic handicaps that the US has imposed on itself — so we taught them to do it wrong like we did it wrong.

    We could have been smarter.

    There may still be time.

    Yeah, I know exporting Tom Paine and true revolution is hardly what the contemporary USA wants to be doing — the US soured on Tom Paine before the man even died, you know.

    [Response: It’s worth keeping in mind that, with all its inefficiency, China’s per-capita usage of the “safe” cumulative carbon emissions of one trillion tonnes C is still below its fair share, whereas the US exceeded its fair share long ago. The analysis is in my recent paper on the Carbon Commons, available at my web site. Unfortunately, the atmosphere doesn’t care about fairness, only about net carbon, so it is urgent to get China (and soon India) on a path to greater efficiency. Cheap coal doesn’t help that. The US actually controls quite a lot of the world’s coal, so our policies toward coal export will have a big effect on what will happen. –raypierre]

  34. 184
    Chris Dudley says:

    raypierre (#181),

    I think import tariffs would handle leakage and would be a nice implementation of the environmental language in GATT.

  35. 185
    David B. Benson says:

    SecularAnimist — As I wrote in an earlier comment, up to 30% (or so) of noontime demand can be accommodated. More becomes less economic. Here is an Australian perspective:

    For those knocking utility companies, recall that they build and maintain the distribution grid upon which retail solar PV depends.

  36. 186
    David B. Benson says:

    Excess carbon dioxide is a world problem. At the same time, there is a desire for reliable, on-demand electricity
    which we need to meet without fossil fuels, both coal and natgas in particular. Alas, In the New Policies Scenario, global coal demand increases by 21% and is heavily focused in China and India. while ambitions for nuclear have been scaled back as countries have reviewed policies following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, but capacity is still projected to rise, led by China, Korea, India and Russia. from,33015,en.html

    The report also states renewables become the world’s second-largest source of power generation by 2015 and close in on coal as the primary source by 2035. However, this rapid increase hinges critically on continued subsidies. In 2011, these subsidies (including for biofuels) amounted to $88 billion, but over the period to 2035 need to amount to $4.8 trillion; over half of this has already been committed to existing projects or is needed to meet 2020 targets. We see that Econ 101 ‘free market’ economics does not appear to be appropriate in the electric power industry. Furthermore, I doubt such a large penetration is actually possible. I’ll give some of the reasons in a subsequent comment later today.

  37. 187
    NateVV says:

    Thank you for this excellent review. Now I know to look out for this movie and to avoid it. One minor gripe though. Was the dig at Nebraska really necessary? There are lots of people in NE who understand the reality of global warming and its consequences and the need to actually switch to more sustainable energy sources. I’ll admit our elected officials may not always reflect that sentiment, but at least we’re not as bad as Oklahoma ;)

    [Response: It was not actually meant to be a dig at Nebraska, and I am sorry if it came off that way. I was just trying to express the idea that so far as reaching an audience goes, a generally more conservative audience with a big stake in new oil (as is the case in red-state Nebraska) might be more willing to find common ground in areas that reduce carbon emissions if traditional virtues like conservation and stewardship are emphasized while the basic scientific issues of global warming are presented in a drier scientific fashion. That’s not to say that everybody in Nebraska is identical, but I do think it is a different audience on the whole than I typically would address around the University of Chicago. –raypierre]

  38. 188
    quokka says:

    #178 James Wimberley wrote

    “Nuclear plants are paradigmatic baseload plants, a model that cheap and plentiful wind and solar has made obsolete, for coal as well; they need complementing with quickly despatchable power, from storage, hydro, geothermal or gas.”

    And the world, for some strange reason, keeps on building base load power plants. Coal continues to increase it’s share of global primary energy production and the IEA projects coal to potentially overtake oil as the world’s number one source of energy by 2017. Funny sort of obsolescence. For the sake of the climate it might be as well to acknowledge reality rather than make up nice sounding stories.

    If baseload is obsolete, I’ve yet to hear any plausible explanation for Germany bringing over 5 GW of coal fired capacity online in 2013 while retiring just 1 GW. Why not just build more wind capacity?

    As for backing wind and solar, geothermal is a non-stater. The only serious proposition that could ever potentially scale to decent size is EGS – engineered geothermal systems (deep dry hot rock and friends). Progress has been less than encouraging and there is no possibility of it being a significant player in the foreseeable future. There is no grid storage at very large scale and no reliable indication of when they may be. Hydro/pumped hydro is a limited resource and far from universally available. And gas is a fossil fuel. The climate benefit of switching from coal to gas is somewhere between small and none.

    Every electricity grid of any size in the world is powered by baseload generators, if you define hydro as baseload which is can be. No exceptions. To think this can and will change over a few short years is the worst type of wishful thinking.

    Claims of baseload obsolescence are so typical of the political need to overstate progress with the climate/energy problem just to shutout nuclear power. Collectively we are failing and not just failing but badly failing. If we insist on being anything other than reality based, there is no hope.

  39. 189
  40. 190
    David B. Benson says:

    Here in the Palouse the so-called million dollar rain comes in June or anyway by the 4th of July. Thereafter is the big dry, sometimes punctuated by thundery storms. The winds almost cease until the autumn rains commence in October. But in 2011 the breezes completely stilled for over 6 weeks. Pacific Northwest air quality
    significantly declined and wind generated power
    was essentially zero. The Pacific Northwest was suffering a so-called blocking high.

    The previous summer, 2010,
    put the Texas grid, controlled by ERCOT, on edge and during the record heat of the summer of 2011
    wind contributed little towards Texans’ air conditioning. ERCOT managed, that time, to save the grid from rolling blackouts by a variety of measures involving the fossil fuel generators. Subsequently ERCOT has decided not to have an energy-only payment system but pay for availability as well. AFAIK the exact new scheme has not be chosen yet.

    Both examples are of blocking highs and so low wind generation. I’m under the impression that blocking highs are persisting longer. Whatever, wind generation is poor to nonexistent during such events. No available storage can possibly (economically) make up for the lack of wind generation for that long; only fossil fuel, hydro or NPPs can do so.

    To counteract the fact that the wind might not be blowing in some locations, but still blowing in others
    suggests a dramatic increase in transmission capability. First of all, 20% is huge; the same as the NPP fleets contribution in the USA. Second, I doubt the transmission can be built very rapidly; planning and permitting takes too long. For example, the
    500 kV line has been in planning and permitting for slightly over 10 years; they had hoped to start the 3 year construction project this spring but clearly are not going to make it. And this is only 500 kilometers. [The current German experiences are relevant as well.]

    All told, grid power is best generated by dispatchable energy dense sources relatively near the loads. Wind doesn’t do well by these criteria, but it is low carbon.

  41. 191
    Harry Lynch says:

    @187, NateVV

    Ray’s review is prejudiced and inaccurate in many facts. We encourage you to see the film and make your own judgement. At least, visit the website to browse the nearly 5 hours of short videos. We try to be very thorough, and as much as possible, non-partisan.

    Our intentions in making the film were not to promote any one technology, but to raise awareness and encourage practical discussions. In that sense, I’m glad his review has sparked a productive nuclear debate.

    Given that, I wanted to offer our take on nuclear and how it fits in the larger transitional energy mix. Our projection concludes that:

    In about 50 years, even without an organized global carbon policy, lower carbon energies will overtake the foundational energies of coal and oil, mostly due to utility, rising supply, and the rising cultural importance of efficiency and renewables. To clarify, this means they exceed 50% of total global energy, with a continued upward trend. This mix is made up of:

    1.7X natural gas, 2.6X nuclear, 5X renewables, and 1.25% per year demand reduction through efficiency

    If we can increase efficiency to 2% per year, it further lowers total energy demand but does not bring faster change (since existing infrastructure decommissions at the same rate, and in fact supplies extend). But it reduces the infrastructure requirement to:

    1.4X natural gas, 2X nuclear, 4X renewables

    After much study we believe either could naturally and affordably occur. But we also calculate these to mean atmospheric CO2 at 600-700ppm, rising to as much as 900ppm as fossils continue to contribute after 50 years.

    It’s difficult and imprecise to predict the associated warming. The models are widely divergent, but a window of 3C to 4C seems a likely median.

    Most here would agree that this time frame, CO2 concentration and warming are too great. So how do we reduce them? More of the substituting resources, faster — which could be theoretically possible, but may not be economically or practically possible.

    What would this mean for nuclear? The world currently has 430 reactors, which were built over the last 50 years. The majority of these will decommission within the next 50 years.

    This means that increasing nuclear capacity 2X would entail building 600 to 800 new reactors (depending on how quickly we do it, compared to the decommission rate of existing supply.) That’s 20 per year over the next 30 to 40 years. About 2 per month. Again, theoretically possible, but doesn’t seem likely given our reticence and, relatedly, the great cost and difficulty.

    Hitting this target would require improving public opinion. A viable waste management plan would help. Better, moving to gen 3 passively safe reactors; gen 4 breeders which burn much farther through the fuel cycle and leave far less waste; LFTR (thorium) reactors; perhaps ultimately fusion.

    All these might one day become commercially viable, but we’re in the very early steps of this progression. We won’t get there in 50 years, certainly no way we’d move farther faster, without a much stronger commitment to the technology, and to the politics.

    And, as with any of these alternative technologies, substituting them faster than existing technologies naturally decommission adds to the challenge by working against market forces.

    Whether we choose to, and can afford to, time will tell.

    [Response: Harry, you state that “After much study we believe either could naturally and affordably occur. But we also calculate these to mean atmospheric CO2 at 600-700ppm, rising to as much as 900ppm as fossils continue to contribute after 50 years. ” Was this stated anywhere in the film? If it was, it must not have been stated very prominently, since it went right by me and the entire rest of the audience present at our screening. The only reference to the amount of warming that might occur, according to the notes I took in real time, was the very flawed statement by Richard Muller. This is, as I said, my main beef with the film. It’s OK if you want to make a film that says we’re just likely to continue being carbon gluttons because it’s more fun that way, but you need to be honest about the consequences. This aspect of the future SWITCH envisions is soft-pedaled to the point of oblivion. –raypierre]

  42. 192
    Harry Lynch says:

    One more thought: the 600 to 800 reactor number would be at similar size to today’s. Global average size is slightly less than a more common 1250mw reactor of today. If future technologies yielded more powerful reactors, that of course would mean fewer needed to replace current stock.

  43. 193
    Chris Dudley says:

    raypierre (#183),

    “China’s per-capita usage of the “safe” cumulative carbon emissions of one trillion tonnes C is still below its fair share, whereas the US exceeded its fair share long ago.”

    This is a very incorrect way of thinking about emissions. There was a time of innocence during which all had an equal opportunity to emit carbon dioxide without consequence. China spent that time in Great Leaps Backwards, sending their educated people to forced labor camps and letting their people starve to death rather than ask other nations for food assistance. They had their chance at that time but they decided to occupy themselves with other pursuits.

    Now, there is an age of culpability where intentions matter regarding emissions because the climate change has become dangerous. A nation planning to increase emissions is carrying out a belligerent act. It is intending for heatwaves to kill people, for crops to fail and for late October storms to gain such energy that they wipe out Coney Island.

    There is nothing per-capita about a nation’s belligerence. There is no fair share. If you step on the gas instead of the brake when approaching a traffic pileup, it is a crime. That is what China is doing regarding emissions. It is intentionally endangering other nations.

  44. 194
    SecularAnimist says:

    quokka wrote: “Every electricity grid of any size in the world is powered by baseload generators … To think this can and will change over a few short years is the worst type of wishful thinking.”

    Not long ago, the number of personal computers in the world was zero, and all the electronic computing in the world was done by giant mainframes that filled an entire floor of an office building — and to think that PCs could completely transform “data processing” in a few short years was wishful thinking.

    Not long ago, the number of cell phones in the world was zero, and all telephony was handled by giant, centralized, wired phone systems — and to think that cell phones could completely transform “telecommunications” in a few short years was wishful thinking.

    Today’s ultra-efficient, ultra-cheap, mass-produced, distributed photovoltaic technology has a similar potential — which is already being realized — to be a disruptive technology that will completely transform the way we generate and use electricity.

    This is true not only in the developed world, where distributed solar (and wind) are already making traditional baseload electricity generation less important (and less profitable), but especially in the developing world.

    Just as a number of developing nations chose to forgo building wired telephone networks, and to instead build their national phone systems using cellular technology from the ground up, some today are beginning to recognize that the best, fastest, cheapest and most practical method of providing electricity to large rural populations who desperately need it is NOT to build giant, centralized baseload power plants and the grids to distribute their power, but instead to go directly to distributed solar power.

  45. 195
    Walter Pearce says:

    Chris @193, why are you singling out China?

    Does the U.S. not rank high on the list of emitters? Do the U.S. and Australia not export vast quantities of coal to China? Are we not, therefore, endangering other nations?

  46. 196
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chris Dudley wrote: “That is what China is doing regarding emissions. It is intentionally endangering other nations.”

    Then what is the US government doing by subsidizing the extraction of massive and increasing amounts of coal from public lands for export to China?

    Not to mention, of course, that the nation most gravely and seriously endangered by China’s use of coal is China itself.

    Are US coal exports to China actually an attack on China?

  47. 197
    Walter Pearce says:

    “But we also calculate these to mean atmospheric CO2 at 600-700ppm, rising to as much as 900ppm as fossils continue to contribute after 50 years.”

    Is this statement largely agreed to on this thread under the laissez-faire scenario described?

    [Response: It’s hard to say for sure without having data files for the precise assumptions about energy demand and the energy mix used in SWITCH, but 900ppm is consistent with the general run of numbers coming out of scenarios with a slight moderation in the of fossil fuels in the energy mix. Complete laissez faire, or extrapolation from the present rate of growth in CO2 emissions, can be much worse, amounting to 5000 GtC emissions by 2150, if we don’t run out of coal first. That gives you a persistent global mean warming of 10C based on the mid-range IPCC climate sensitivity. By the way, I find it much easier to think about these things in terms of carbon budgets and cum. carbon emissions than ppm. See also my response to Harry Lynch below. –raypierre]

  48. 198

    #193–Chris, I see your logic. But it’s disingenuous at best to attach all blame for China’s technological and economic shortcomings to her leadership from, say, 1950 through 1990. A great deal more opprobrium should also attach to European colonialism throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s.

    Moreover, the common citizens of China were the victims of your ‘Great Leaps Backwards’; how just would it be to make them (and their descendants for the foreseeable future) captives of those errors imposed on them in the past? “Not very,” has been the consensus answer, hence the structure of Kyoto.

    Yes, we all need to be stepping on the brake. A few are doing so, but most are not–not decisively so, anyway. China’s current failings in this regard are widely shared.

  49. 199
    Hank Roberts says:

    > it is a crime
    Shall we start with 1800? Or perhaps you’d want to excuse the US Civil War conflagration and start with say 1900?

    This isn’t like finance, where an old crime by a swashbuckling ancestor who just happens to have made you a rich grandchild leaves you with no guilt, now, is it?

    I say we let whichever nations haven’t sinned against the climate run the climate court and climate jail.

    Which ones would that be? The Algonquins might qualify.

    [Response: Relatively speaking, that might be Africa, which among populous continents is also likely to be among the hardest hit by climate change and least able to deal with the consequences. –raypierre]

  50. 200