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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. 201
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    Harry Lynch says,

    … 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 …

    Good point. Nuclear power stations whose output energy is in the form of a storable energetic chemical would tend to have capacities similar to the top end of today’s oil refinery capacity range, ~400,000 times 66 kW, or in the units they use, 400,000 barrels per day. Dividing by a 0.33 heat-to-fuel conversion efficiency that makes 80 GW.

  2. 202
    Harry Lynch says:

    @ 201, GRL Cowan

    Yes, Jesse Ausubel, a brilliant futurist and ‘habitat-oriented green,’ thinks the most promising use for nuclear reactors will be to make hydrogen, and envisions an energy economy in 2100 built on hydrogen and electricity from nuclear plants. Sounds far fetched today, but he’s been right about many things.

    We’ve got an interview with him on the site:

    But for some of his writings on this subject see:

    Warning, he is very disturbed by the land use of large scale renewable projects, and hits them pretty hard in this paper.

    [Response: I find your sympathy with Ausubel’s take on impacts of green energy hard to reconcile with the way SWITCH whitewashed the environmental impacts of Nordic hydropower. But however one feels about the land use impacts of renewable energy, those impacts must be interpreted in the context of the far more threatening climate impacts of unrestrained fossil fuel use. This is where SWITCH fails most miserably. All energy systems have adverse impacts, but among energy systems surely coal and tar sands are the worst of the worst, since you not only get all the bad impacts of CO2 emissions, but also mercury and widespread devastation of the landscape. SWITCH prettifies coal and tar sands to such an extent that the viewer has no basis for making the kind of difficult judgements that need to be made. If it takes review of the production notes and script, and a frame-by-frame analysis of the film to get the point, then the film is a failure. The film you thought you were making is not the film you actually made, still less the film the viewer sees and responds to. –raypierre]

  3. 203
    Harry Lynch says:

    Here’s an excerpt to give you an idea of his writing style. Well worth reading:

    “I will offer both renewable and nuclear heresies. I trust readers will not commit
    hereticide. Because culture defines heresies, readers coming from a nuclear tribe will
    probably applaud my renewable heresies and grumble about the nuclear. While my
    heresies may not rival favouring polygamy or sharing all worldly goods, they will
    disturb many. My main heresies are that renewable sources of energy are not green
    and that the nuclear industry should make a product beside electricity.”

  4. 204
    SecularAnimist says:

    Harry Lynch wrote: “Jesse Ausubel … thinks the most promising use for nuclear reactors will be to make hydrogen, and envisions an energy economy in 2100 built on hydrogen and electricity from nuclear plants …”

    Interesting that he chooses the options that are most costly, and least effective at reducing GHG emissions in the very short time frame we have, over the options that are already being rapidly deployed at all scales all over the world, which we already know how to scale up even more rapidly.

    Indeed, a “nuclear-hydrogen” energy economy is the ideal vision for those who want to perpetuate BAU consumption of fossil fuels for another century.

    Harry Lynch wrote: “he is very disturbed by the land use of large scale renewable projects”

    Why? The land use footprint of nuclear is larger than that of renewables:

    Many nuclear advocates argue that renewable electricity has far too big a land ‘footprint’ to be environmentally acceptable, while nuclear power is preferable because it uses orders of magnitude less land. If we assume that land-use is an important metric, a closer look reveals the opposite is true.

    Harry Lynch quoted Jesse Ausubel: “I will offer both renewable and nuclear heresies”

    You know, “heresy” can be a lot of fun. But sometimes it is just wrong.

  5. 205
    Chris Dudley says:

    Kevin (#198),

    So Senators Barton and Inhofe are so goofy because of the Mexican drug trade?

    You are kind of missing the point. In an age of culpability, who sets the emissions policy? National governments. Just like they set their military policy or their human rights policy. There is no per-capita or making up lost ground. If you want to develop, you do it using renewables. If you are developed and have sunk costs you substitute gas for coal then renewables for gas and eat the sunk costs that can’t be depreciated.

    Kyoto was negotiated before dangerous climate change started. But now there are attributable damages that are occurring. It is national governments that have a policy of increasing emissions that are responsible for those damages.

  6. 206
    Harry Lynch says:


    Ray, as I described already, and is described in the film, we visited each resource where it is best in the world. We did that for the big dirty ones, and the little clean ones similarly. Coal plants or solar plants, we did not prettify any of them. We simply found which sites best demonstrate their particular technology, and interviewed the people who knew them best. Each resource received the same treatment.

    Only 20% of Alberta’s tar sands can be mined in the environmentally disastrous manner that currently dominates. Soon the deeper sands will remain, and require the superior steam injection method we show.

    [Response: But surface mining hasn’t stopped yet, has it? In fact there are still new surface mines going into production. Some of the recent mining operations are described here. The 20% of minable deposits will keep surface mining going for quite a while. And I suppose the air and water pollution from the in-situ techniques are irrelevant? As is the very considerable amount of energy these new techniques require? So it’s OK if the only picture of oil sands production your viewers come away with is a bunch of guys in a lab mooning over their flask of dilbit? Yeah, that all makes Keystone XL a lot more palatable. ]

    We demonstrate in the film that CCS will not be economically feasible, suggesting the world will not pursue it. If you follow those demonstration projects, it appears our prediction was correct. We leave it up to the viewer to determine whether we should continue use coal, given that it will not be clean. I know what my answer would be. But that doesn’t mean we will stop.

    [Response: You don’t actually demonstrate anything of the sort, you just state it. Whether it’s economically feasible depends on what price is put on carbon, and also depends on future developments of CCS technology. But that’s mostly besides the point. The main problem is that you never connect the dots and tell people that if CCS really is unfeasible, then continued coal burning is going to lead to very serious climate problems. I guess you don’t think that’s important.]

    As you correctly mention, all energies have environmental impacts. We focus on these least because this what the vast majority of the world’s populace, and therefore their governments and businesses, do. Environmental impacts should weigh more heavily in our energy choices, in this energy user’s view — but they do not. This is the reality.

    [Response: Maybe your reality. Maybe it’s also your reality that nothing can ever change. –raypierre]

    And, also as explained, we did not aim to provide what an idealist on the margin (any idealist, any margin) thinks should be our energy solutions. (This is one reason Jesse Ausubel, though we admire him, did not appear in the film itself.) Instead we tried to provide practical practical knowledge, and encourage practical discussions.

    [Response: It does not take an idealist to face up to scientific reality. If you wanted to make a film saying that the reality is we’re going to continue practically unrestrained fossil fuel use, you should face up to the reality that it is eventually going to entail very serious problems from climate change. To do otherwise is dishonest.]

    I don’t consider the film a failure at all,

    [Response: That’s not really for you to judge ]

    nor do the middle 80% of our audience, who have been enthusiastic —

    [Response: I have to wonder how scientific your poll is, or how many of those 80% have any familiarity with climate science at all ]

    including many more knowledgeable on energy than any posters here, myself included. Only the 20% on far ends of the issues have found that it does not sufficiently condemn ‘those evil fossil fuels,’ or condemns them too strongly, or ‘fails’ in some other grand manner.

    Though you are far too immersed in your own world view to imagine this, a group of coal lobbyists saw the film and the next day made an appointment to visit the Texas governor, demanding to know why he had allowed a state employee (Scott as Director or the Bureau) to make an anti-coal film.

    Not long after, an antinuke advocate publicly accused us of being in the pocket of the nuclear industry, surmising that the entire effort must have been secretly funded by Areva.

    Then I was attacked at a California screening for promoting “the energy industry.” I asked which one, and they said “all of them!” and began to urgently explain why we must return to an agrarian society.

    We have been accused, by everyone who champions one particular technology or solution over others, of somehow ignoring their solution or promoting someone else’s.

    Energy is highly polarized, and this means that, try as we might to find it, there is no neutral path. We’re always left or right of someone.

    [Response: But making a film about energy which fails to inform its readers about the climate consequences which need to inform every energy decision is hardly a public service. In that regard, the film is a failure, and the more people who get snookered into watching it, the greater the failure. –raypierre]

  7. 207
    Chris Dudley says:

    Harry (#202),

    I seem to remember that making hydrogen at the Fukushima nuclear power plant ended up spreading pieces of the power plant all over the place. It was a problem at TMI as well. Not an auspicious idea I’d say.

  8. 208
    Chris Dudley says:

    SA (#196),

    Who was responsible for the Pearl Harbor attack? The nations that sold iron to Japan to build a navy, or the country that ran that navy? Emissions policies are set by national governments.

    I don’t think US miners should be dying to supply other countries with coal but I don’t mind Australia selling coal if they are OK with that kind of thing. Our coal company executives wrap themselves in flags to justify miner deaths so exports don’t really work for us. Just don’t treat imports from countries that are increasing emissions the same as imports from countries that are cutting emissions if you suffer from climate damage. The polluter should pay.

  9. 209
    Walter Pearce says:

    raypierre — inline to my 197. Thank you. Found the Potsdam figure of less than 700 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions allowable from here on if we’re to have a “reasonable” chance of exceeding a 2c increase.

    Given “reasonably” hard numbers like that, it seems insane that governments wouldn’t work to establish firm national commitments and infrastructure development plans, rather than float down the river naturally as Mr. Lynch depicts.

    And Chris Dudley — according to a Nature study referenced by Potsdam, ““In principle, it is the sum of all CO2 emissions that matters. In practice, substantial reductions in global emissions have to begin soon, before 2020.”

    There’s no “age of culpability,” unless you include all of those involved from the industrial revolution onward.

    [Response: The Potsdam number corresponds to a 75% chance of staying under 2C. The trillion tonne total C number (3.7 trillion tonnes CO2), which gives us about 500 billion tonnes C (1.85 trillion tonnes CO2) left to go, corresponds to a 50% chance of staying under 2C. The Potsdam number used to be a trillion tonnes CO2 as of the Meinshausen paper, and I don’t know what happened to bring it down to 700 billion. –raypierre]

  10. 210
    Harry Lynch says:

    @204, SecularAnimist

    You could at least read Ausubel’s paper, or visit our website, or watch the movie, before commenting knowingly on them. It tells me how carefully you’ve read and fact-checked the sources you use to support your arguments.

    “…over the options that are already being rapidly deployed at all scales all over the world, which we already know how to scale up even more rapidly.”

    What data could you possibly be looking at? Your political opinion of solar and wind has blinded you to the realities of their slow growth (30 years to very partial materiality, in only a few countries) and limited application. In a world where we demand electricity at any time of day or night, they cannot meet that demand and therefore remain supplemental. (Don’t believe the few dubious and debunked studies that suggest we could get 100% of our electricity from intermittents.)

    But a supplement is good, and very valuable. More reasonable studies and real world experience indicate modern grid systems could integrate 20% of intermittents before instability. Given the monumental scale of energy use, 20% globally would be a monumental achievement, make a very significant impact, and would be an admirable if not practical goal.

    Someone mentioned, which suggests that the 20% come from wind in the US. This would entail building 16,000mwe of wind capacity per year from 2018 through 2030.

    That’s means duplicating the world’s largest wind farm, Roscoe (we shot there for the film), 21 times each year. To clarify, that’s 2 of the world’s largest wind farms, completed each month!

    Remember that each of these takes up 100,000 acres. 2,100,000 acres per year. Nearly 30,000,000 acres total. And that wind developers are struggling to build anything since continuation of the PTC is uncertain.

    We could do even more dramatic calculations with Andasol, the world’s largest solar plant, at 150mw capacity (still about 16% capacity factor) which we also visit in the film. It would require 16 of them PER MONTH over the same time period.

    That’s not fast, or easy, or near term, or likely.

    Here’s another chestnut:

    “Indeed, a “nuclear-hydrogen” energy economy is the ideal vision for those who want to perpetuate BAU consumption of fossil fuels for another century.”

    Again, if you took the time to read Ausubel’s paper before commenting, you’d see that the main tenet of his argument is decarbonization. How exactly does this promote fossil fuel use?

    But hey, don’t let research, data, practicality, history, economics, thermodynamics or the laws of physics stand in the way of your vision. They’re just cramping your style!

  11. 211
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    I say “a storable energetic chemical” and Harry Lynch hears “hydrogen”!?

    No, not hydrogen. If you put $100 billion into developing hydrogen cars, refuelling points, and hydrogen generating stations, the motoring public will snap those cars up by the dozen.

  12. 212
    Pat Cassen says:

    Harry Lynch (#191):

    “…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.”

    To omit this conclusion from the film is sort of like making “Anna Karenina” without the suicide. Viewers sense something crucial is missing.

  13. 213

    #205–Chris Dudley wrote:

    So Senators Barton and Inhofe are so goofy because of the Mexican drug trade?

    You are kind of missing the point.

    Evidently so…

  14. 214
    Chris Dudley says:

    Walter (#209),

    Actually no. Nobody told us when we were industrializing that emissions were a problem and they would have been wrong if they had because emissions were not a problem at that time. Now, we have to rebuild what we already built and which already worked because it turns out emissions are a problem. But industrializing counties now have been told that emissions are a problem. There is no reason at all to industrialize based on fossil fuels particularly since we invented the transistor which makes photovoltaics work. So, it is not about the total, it is about culpable emissions which demonstrate intent to do damage.

    [Response: Lack of knowledge of the law (of nature) is no excuse, but in any event, it was abundantly clear that emissions are a problem any time after Manabe’s work of around 1960. There might be some justification in writing off first-world emissions before then, but so much of our emissions have happened since that it wouldn’t make a huge difference. China and India have a problem with emissions not because they have used up their per-capita share of the trillion tonnes (they haven’t), but because the first world exceeded its fair share. In that sense, we ought to pay the developing world something for our over-use of this common resource, in order to help them accelerate their decarbonization and make up for their share of the carbon commons we have already used up. –raypierre]

  15. 215
    Chris Dudley says:

    SA (204),

    Interesting to note that if we keep going with nuclear power for the next 60 years with the current accident rate, nuclear power will have made permanently inhabitable radiation exclusion zones with the same land area needed to replace all nuclear power with solar pv farms.

    Nukes are forever I guess.

  16. 216
    SecularAnimist says:

    Harry Lynch wrote: “Your political opinion of solar and wind has blinded you … don’t let research, data, practicality, history, economics, thermodynamics or the laws of physics stand in the way of your vision. They’re just cramping your style!”

    So now you are reduced to insults.

    Harry Lynch wrote: “… blinded you to the realities of their slow growth (30 years to very partial materiality, in only a few countries) and limited application.”

    As you must be well aware, wind and solar have only recently begun to scale up, so your choice of 30 years as a time frame in which to evaluate their growth is cherry-picking akin to selecting 1998 as the year that global warming “stopped”.

    The reality is that wind power in the USA has been growing at record rates for years. In 2012 US wind generation capacity grew 28 percent, accounting for 42 percent of all new generating capacity, more than any other source of electricity. That’s over 13,000 MW of new wind capacity installed in one year.

    As for “limited application”, total installed wind capacity in the USA is now over 60,000 MW — but that’s quite small to the total wind energy resource of more than 10,000,000 MW onshore and 4,000,000 MW offshore (according to NREL).

    Elsewhere in the world, wind power has already surpassed nuclear power as China’s third largest source of electricity, produced more electricity than any other source for 3 months in Spain, and provided more than 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity consumption, and grew by 20 percent in Germany. The EU installed more than one offshore wind turbine PER DAY in 2012.

    As for solar, it is still much smaller than wind but growing much faster — indeed, solar is the fastest growing source of new electricity generation in the world. US solar installations in 2012 totaled more than 3,300 MW, up 76 percent over 2011 — and utility-scale solar, which is just getting started, grew by 134 percent.

    According to FERC’s March 2013 “Energy Infrastructure Update”, solar accounted for ALL new utility generation capacity added to the US grid in March, and 30 percent of all new utility-scale capacity for the quarter. Note that this does NOT include growth in end-user distributed solar installations which account for more than half of US solar capacity. There is every reason to expect continued rapid and accelerating growth, especially given the plummeting costs of solar, which have dropped 40 percent in just the last two years.

    And of course solar is growing even faster elsewhere, particularly in Australia and Germany. And as with wind, the harvestable solar energy resources of the USA, and the world, VASTLY exceed all of human civilization’s energy consumption.

    Harry Lynch wrote: “Don’t believe the few dubious and debunked studies that suggest we could get 100% of our electricity from intermittents.”

    Now there’s a “political opinion” for you.

    Multiple independent studies, including studies published in peer-reviewed journals, have shown clear paths to a 100 percent renewable electricity supply, and none of those studies have been “debunked” as you assert.

    Your repeated use of the disparaging term “intermittents” to describe wind and solar is very clearly a politically-motivated choice.

    Harry Lynch wrote: “… if you took the time to read Ausubel’s paper before commenting, you’d see that the main tenet of his argument is decarbonization. How exactly does this promote fossil fuel use?”

    I didn’t say that Ausubel’s intent was to promote fossil fuel use.

    What I said is that schemes based on technologies that don’t exist and will not exist for many decades — like building hundreds or thousands of “generation whatever” science-fiction nuclear reactors that only exist on paper today, to produce hydrogen to be stored and distributed and used through systems that are likewise vaporware — are ideal for those who DO want to postpone the phaseout of fossil fuels for decades.

    As far as I can tell, your comments here have reaffirmed Raypierre’s impression of the film: downplay the threat of global warming, portray continued fossil fuel use as inevitable, disparage the mature and powerful clean energy solutions that are already being rapidly and widely deployed, and promote alternative technologies (e.g. nuclear & hydrogen) that are at least decades away from having any impact on the profits of the fossil fuel industry.

  17. 217
    quokka says:

    Australian coal exports to China have been mentioned a number of times on this thread. As a matter of fact, Japan is the biggest export market for Australian coal, followed by China, Korea, India and Taiwan in that order.

    I’m sure that the likes of Gina Rinehart will shed no tears if the shutdown of nuclear power in Japan continues.

    Australian thermal coal exports are projected to grow at an average of 11% per year to 2017. And exports of metallurgical coal by 8%. A large portion of Australian exports are high quality metallurgical coal.

  18. 218
    Harry Lynch says:


    Well friend, then make yourself clear.

    Hydrogen is a perfectly viable ‘chemical storage of energy,’ and when people refer to ‘storing energy as a fuel’ hydrogen is usually a top option. It’s our predominant energy carrier.

  19. 219
    David B. Benson says:

    Wind generation requires balancing agents. Typically these are combined cycle gas turbines, which ramp rapidly enough (just barely). The Wind Energy Association recently announced that in the USA wind farms operated at an average of 34% capacity factor in 2012. [That is impressive since the average for the Columbia Basin wind farms is but 27%.]

    For a nameplate 360 MW wind farm the grid operator needs to allocate 360 MW of a CCGT. For a cost of

    0.34W + 0.66C per MWh

    where W is the cost of wind generation and C is the cost of natgas generation, the grid operator now has 360 MW of dispatchable power available (with restrictions as wind is must-take). To be concrete, W might be US$92/MWh, as in a recent contract with Idaho Power, while from
    C might be US$55/MWh. The result is certainly less than the US$80–120/MWh for nuclear new build as represented by a pair of mPower NPPs in
    This results from a lack of a carbon tax which if set at around US$45/MWh for natgas then makes the NPPs about as financially attractive as wind+natgas.

  20. 220
    Chris Dudley says:

    raypierre (#214),

    It was not until 2008 that we were told that the 450-550 ppm stabilization target would be a problem. Some still think it is OK including you apparently. And solid attribution of dangerous climate change effects is more recent still. So, until recently, emissions were going to be a problem but were not yet a problem and there was a pie to divide up. But, now they are a problem because they are causing current damage, damage that shows up in crop insurance payouts and flood insurance payouts in the federal budget. Who should pay for that? Those who are causing the problem with malevolent intent demonstrated by their insistence on increasing rather than reducing emissions.

    For now, rather small tariffs can cover those costs.

    China might be able to blame scientific reticence for not providing a clearer warning that they did not have the headroom they thought, but now we have facts on the ground and they are still unresponsive. So, it is time for some unilateralism to defend ourselves. Better a little now than later when we would have to take in kind steps as our military capability in the Pacific is degraded as the Pentagon is predicting. Having to provide a compensatory degradation of China’s capabilities would not be pretty at all.

  21. 221
    quokka says:

    #215 Chris Dudley wrote:

    “Interesting to note that if we keep going with nuclear power for the next 60 years with the current accident rate, nuclear power will have made permanently inhabitable radiation exclusion zones with the same land area needed to replace all nuclear power with solar pv farms.”

    I’ve never found stuff that is just made up to very interesting.

    Take a look at the radiation maps for Fukushima here, and note the decline from Nov 2011 to Dec 2012

    If you do the simple calculation, you will find that annual dose for anybody spending 24 hours a day outdoors in any of the blue and light green areas would be not significantly more than to residents of Cornwall in the UK where average natural dose is about 7 mSv per year. Unlike in Cornwall projected annual dose will continue to decline fairly rapidly for a few years as the Cs-134 decays and then more slowly as Cs-137 becomes the only significant source.

    Unlike the dioxins in the mud at bottom of Sydney harbour, pollution from a radiation accident is not forever. I believe the experience from the Chernobyl accident was that about half of the lifetime projected dose was delivered in the first year after the accident. If you crunch the numbers, you would find that only for an individual living for a full lifetime in the red and perhaps a little of the orange areas on the map, would projected lifetime dose exceed that to residents of Cornwall in the UK from natural sources.

    As for the significantly worse Chernobyl accident, the Ukraine government has declared most evacuated towns fit for habitation after extensive radiation surveys:

    Which kind of puts an upper bound of about 25 years on large exclusion zones. Fukushima will be far less. Certainly very serious and just as certainly not permanent.

  22. 222
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    Harry Lynch writes,

    Hydrogen is a perfectly viable ‘chemical storage of energy,’ and when people refer to ‘storing energy as a fuel’ hydrogen is usually a top option. It’s our predominant energy carrier.

    Electricity is our predominant energy carrier. When energy is used to make an energetic chemical that then is delivered to energy users, my guess is that that chemical is zinc. Non-rechargeable zinc batteries still seem to be in stores in large numbers, so I estimate 10,000 to 100,000 tonnes a year is used this way.

    I used to be a hydrogen-for-energy-transfer fan, like the late computer scientist John McCarthy, who had a hydrogen page on which he said, “We hydrogen enthusiasts will just have to wait”. And I see his web pages still exist (

    Chemical-fuel-making nuclear power stations could calcine limestone, extract hydrogen from water, and react the carbon dioxide from the limestone with the hydrogen to make oil. The alkaline earth left over from the calcination could be spread over flat land to take back CO2 from the atmosphere, and be calcined again. This would make more sense than trying to get people to run their cars on hydrogen without carbon.

  23. 223
    Chris Dudley says:

    Kevin (#213),

    Sorry, perhaps that was obscure. European relations with China were semi-colonial. They worked through ports established by the unequal treaties and had the facade of trade relations. Railways were built, but from the coast into the hinterland rather than connecting Chinese inter-province commerce. But, one of the ways that silver especially was extracted from China was the opium trade. This was ruinous for Chinese prosperity because there were so many addicts created. The US tried to help to put an end to it.

    So, my joke was that the Senators are stoned and that is why our efforts are not as strong as they should be similar to blaming colonialism (and opium) for China’s inability to grow a pair on emissions issues.

  24. 224
    sidd says:

    Mr. Chris Dudley wrote on the 11th of April, 2013 at 7:00 PM:

    “It was not until 2008 that we were told that the 450-550 ppm stabilization target would be a problem.”

    who is “we” ? it was clear long before

    “So, until recently, emissions were going to be a problem but were not yet a problem and there was a pie to divide up.”

    there still is

    “But, now they are a problem because they are causing current damage, damage that shows up in crop insurance payouts and flood insurance payouts in the federal budget. Who should pay for that?”

    You are. Have you noticed the increase in food prices ? Don’t like it ? Change your representatives. Oh, wait, agribiz owns them all…and gets the bulk of the crop insurance. So sad.

    “Those who are causing the problem with malevolent intent demonstrated by their insistence on increasing rather than reducing emissions.”

    Excellent. Put Rex Tillerson on trial.

    “China might be able to blame scientific reticence for not providing a clearer warning that they did not have the headroom they thought, but now we have facts on the ground and they are still unresponsive.”

    So…all the wind and solar and nuke built in China indicates a lack of response. What then shall we call the lack of action in the USA ?

    “So, it is time for some unilateralism to defend ourselves. Better a little now than later when we would have to take in kind steps as our military capability in the Pacific is degraded as the Pentagon is predicting. Having to provide a compensatory degradation of China’s capabilities would not be pretty at all.”

    I see. Bomb their coal fields and coal burners to save the world. This kind of adolescent jingoistic rant is more appropriate on a denier site.

    More seriously:
    We have approx 500GTon C of atmospheric fossil loading left on a lucky course to avoid 2C. The OECD countries have burnt more than their fair share of the carbon budget in the past. They need to decarbonize fastest and furthest, precisely to allow the developing countries the headroom they need to follow. And they should opensource the technologies for renewables such as panel and turbine blade design.

    That last bit is of course anathema to the powers that be … but they too shall pass

    And to return to the particular piece of dreck that’s the subject of this post:
    It calls for a sequel: what if we were stupid enough to actually do what the movie claims assumes is going to happen ?


    [Response: Something to add to China’s credit side on efforts to keep down their emissions is their successful effort to rein in population growth. The policies have caused real sacrifice, and many of them are morally questionable and I do like to think that there is a more benign way of achieving the same end, but be that as it may the Chinese emission situation would be far worse (as would be their problems with alleviating poverty) if they had been steadily growing at the rate of India. –raypierre]

  25. 225
    quokka says:

    Some breaking news that certainly looks like an environmental victory.

    Woodside is abandoning it’s $45 billion LNG project in Western Australia. It was set to become the largest LNG facility in the world

    XL pipeline campaigners may feel encouraged.

  26. 226
    David B. Benson says:
    This astounding achievement was made possible by more than tripling generation from hydro.

  27. 227

    Thanks for the explanation, Chris.

  28. 228
  29. 229
    Harry Lynch says:


    Actually, hydrogen, in the form of carbohydrates and hydrocarbons, is our predominant energy carrier.

    In the middle of our outdoor interview with Dr. Dan Sperling, Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and one of the world’s leading authorities on transportation alternatives, one of their hydrogen fuel cell cars drove by. We paused for a moment, and he said, “There goes the real future of transportation…”

    Many experts still believe.

  30. 230
    Harry Lynch says:

    @216 Secular Animist again:

    Why 30 years? That’s an average of how long it takes to make a partial energy transition, to take a technology from experimental to some level of materiality. That’s also about how long we’ve been building wind and solar seriously. (In truth, it’s been longer, since the 70s. Saying 30 years is giving them a decade.)

    Here’s Vaclav Smil on the subject:

    “Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of energy transitions is their speed. Substituting one form of energy for another takes a long time. U.S. nuclear generation began to deliver 10 percent of all electricity after 23 years of operation, and it took 38 years to reach a 20 percent share, which occurred in 1995. It has stayed around that mark ever since. Electricity generation by natural gas turbines took 45 years to reach 20 percent.
    In 2025 modern wind turbines will have been around for some 30 years, and if by then they supply just 15 percent of the electricity in the United States, it will be a stunning success. And even the most optimistic projects for solar generation don’t promise half that much. The quest for non­carbon sources of electricity is highly desirable, and eventually such sources will predominate. But this can happen only if planners have realistic expectations. The comparison to a giant oil tanker, uncomfortable as it is, fits perfectly: Turning it around takes lots of time.”

    Here, also, is our video on scale, which says the same thing, and tees up efficiency:

  31. 231
    Harry Lynch says:

    @216 Secular Animist, one final time:

    No one has debunked the 100% intermittents theory?

    “…We must be realistic about their contribution…suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny…renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future…’

    This is James Hansen, who I believe you’ve cited, writing in his personal email newsletter (skip past the baby pictures):

    He goes on:

    “Recently I received a mailing on the climate crisis from a large environmental organization.
    Their request, letters and e-mails to Congress and the President, mentioned only renewable
    energies (specifically wind and solar power). Such a request offends nobody, and it is worthless.
    Indeed, it is much less than worthless. If you drink the kool-aid represented in the right part of
    Fig. 7, you are a big part of the problem.”

    I know you won’t believe me, but perhaps you’ll believe Hansen? This type of thinking is not just unproductive, it’s counterproductive.

    “The right part of Fig. 7” refers to an intermittents-only approach first proposed by Amory Lovins 30 years ago. Please see the link — there is much other worthwhile in it.

    Hansen supports a nuclear-led portfolio of zero carbon energies, including large scale hydro and intermittent renewables, and a carbon price. I would agree with all that, but add stricter efficiency legislation and encouragements to substitute natural gas for coal in power and oil in transport, since both can act relatively quickly at scale.

    IF we decided to get serious about CO2 reduction, that’s the only practical path toward a solution.

    But it would be expensive and disruptive, and requires prioritizing potential long term benefit over the short, including durable policy lasting beyond administration changes. For these reasons and others the world’s people and governments have shown little serious interest.

    Which is why, going back to my original comment, we produced the projection in Switch. To show how the transition likely will happen, even in a gradually improving (per Ausubel, naturally decarbonizing) BAU scenario.

  32. 232
    Harry Lynch says:

    @ Ray, my final comment here:

    This, from my earlier post, is the core of the carbon policy suggestions I intend to write on the Switch site.

    “…a nuclear-led portfolio of zero carbon energies, including large scale hydro and intermittent renewables, and a carbon price… plus stricter efficiency legislation, demand management, and encouragements to substitute natural gas for coal in power and oil in transport, since these can act quickly at scale.

    IF we decided to get serious about CO2 reduction, that’s the only practical path toward a solution.”

    I know you’re no fan of my filmmaking (just as I’m no fan of your writing), but I’ve also been considering making this the follow up to Switch.

    My regards,

  33. 233
    quokka says:

    #232 Harry Lynch,

    Could I suggest an addition to your statement to include the need for much expanded government involvement (and spending) in energy R&D. It is not clear at all that the tools currently at hand are sufficient to do the job. One thing that a carbon tax does not necessarily do is foster R&D spending in long term projects with timelines of more than say a decade+. Whatever one thinks about ITER, it is hard to see projects of such duration and scale would be undertaken by private industry – even with a carbon tax. It may turn out that we really will need the results of such R&D.

    This is especially important for advanced nuclear power, but there are probably quite a number of areas where a good case could be made. For example research into low emission alternatives to current methods of producing iron and steel or cement. Both are big emitters.

  34. 234
    Rich Creager says:

    SecularAnimist- Re my 152 and your 158: I appologize for the delay, but since you have declared me repeatedly wrong, let me address your contentions point by point.

    There is an absolute need to drastically increase conservation measures, the lowest hanging fruit, especially in the US. Who would dispute that? Add all the world’s needs for transportation and heating, along with a relentlessly growing cooling demand, to the current electricity demand on the grid, and subtract savings from conservation. Cover that all with non carbon sources within several decades. That is the requirement. As I said.

    Perhaps the evolution of the power infrastructure in the developing world can follow a path allowing reliable supply without any baseload plants, as you assert. Certainly the movement of the technology is in that direction. How completely and rapidly that can occur I lack the autonomous expertise to evaluate. Even allowing that to be true, you refute my assertion for the developed world that some type of base load supply must be chosen, for those parts of the world where hydro is unavailable, merely by stating that “utility-scale and distributed solar and wind are making base load power generation increasingly less important”. It is a mighty long step from there to we don’t need tham at all, so I’ll have to go back to True on that one.

    Next you again assert, this time without qualification, that renewables can reliably supply it all with a smart grid, even in developed countries. Hopefully true. I am just a scientifically literate lay-lurker here, with what I like to think of as a modicum of critical thinking skills, though perhaps I’m just cynical. But it would clearly take a much smarter grid than now exists. Is there a clear, shared vision of how to get there? How to fund the re-engineering and retrofitting of the existing grid? Is this proved technology or are we talking about newly conceived ideas, never implemented on a large scale? It has to work the first time and be fully implemented within decades. My critical thinking skills (or cynicism), on the advice of nearly all expert opinion tell me not to put my eggs in that basket. We will need base load of some type. I’ll change that one back to True.

    I assert that renewables with energy storage have yet to be invented, much less demonstrated, lumping them for practical purposes with CCS. Okay, several solar collecting plants with thermal storage have been built, tho one reads of problems. And you can make as big a pile of batteries as you like. But can you make thousands and thousands of huge piles of batteries all over the world; can this scale to replace coal plants on a significant basis? When I was in gradeschool my Dad was a chemist in a battery plant. We moved when the EPA closed it down. I think it ended as a superfund site. Anecdotal of course. Compressed air, thermal storage, geothermal, flywheels are in different stages of developement- none are ready for widespread immediate construction to displace coal, which is what is needed. Deploying them on a wide scale before proper smaller scale engineering research has been done, pilot plants operated, operating and safety routines established would just result in power outages, political ass-covering, etc. When(if) these technologies go widely on line they have to work first time, all the time. Hospitals, water utilities, and all my Wisconsin neighbors whose heating will hopefully be on the grid, don’t want to hear that the flywheel in the e-storage plant is down again because it turns out the special ceramics in the main bearings crack after a few months at load, or whatever or whatever.

    We have wasted the time we had to methodically develop these technologies before they were needed. The political and economic inertia of the trajectory the world is on combine with the short time available to narrow the realistic implementable options to nuclear. What is needed is broad implementation of conservation combined with significantly increased funding for basic and engineering research on smart grid development and energy storage. Nuclear plants should be built to displace coal, and then natural gas plants. As varius energy storage modalities, or CCS mature they should be built as situationally appropriate to replace retiring currently existing nuclear plants. The technologies that prove out could then be more widely deployed to replace the most recently built nuclear plants.

  35. 235
    Chris Dudley says:

    sidd (#224),

    I see your misunderstanding. I was speaking of military capabilities in that paragraph. Destruction of our Pacific military infrastructure owing to climate change can be seen as an intentional effort by China to shift the balance of power. All they have to do is keep increasing their already huge emissions and we lose bases and have less capability to defend our allies. Reducing their offensive capabilities to rebalanced would be a very nasty effort to undertake.

    Military conflict as a result of climate change is very likely and informs present planning efforts. But conflict with China, as their emissions plans indicate the want, would be a frellin shame.

  36. 236
    Chris Dudley says:

    Harry (#231),

    Since you insulted the energy expertise of readers of this site, it is rather concerning to me that you hold up an energy non-expert, Hansen, in opposition to one of the top energy experts in the world, Lovins. Lovins has explored all options in his recent book “Reinventing Fire” and found large scale renewables with new transmission to be the lowest cost option. He prefers more localized generation owing to its reliability against large scale disruptions, but he also finds that to be more expensive. Using nuclear is more expensive still.

    People here are very much aware of Hansen’s extraordinary expertise, but is in the area of climate science, not energy. You are strongly indicating that you lack credibility by proposing this comparison.

    From a recent link:

    Physicist Amory Lovins, consultant to business and government leaders worldwide and active in the electricity industry for over 30 years, has written 31 books and over 450 papers. He’s received the Blue Planet, Volvo, Onassis, Nissan, Shingo, Zayed, and Mitchell Prizes, MacArthur and Ashoka Fellowships, 11 honorary doctorates, and the Heinz, Lindbergh, Right Livelihood, National Design, and World Technology Awards. Formerly an Oxford don and a visiting teacher at nine universities (most recently Stanford’s School of Engineering) he’s an Hon. AIA and a Swedish engineering academician. In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and Foreign Policy, one of the 100 top global thinkers. He’s currently Chairman and Chief Scientist at Rocky
    Mountain Institute.

  37. 237
    Chris Dudley says:

    Harry (#230),

    Citing Smil for support for a go slow approach lacks credibility. Just look at his argument. He uses nuclear power, the least nimble of all energy options to say that things are slow. He considers a system where demand growth is slow, then says things take a long time. He has bamboozled you which is his usual MO.

    If we are willing to eat sunk costs, renewables can take over in 15 years as many peer reviewed studies have shown.

  38. 238
    Hank Roberts says:

    > It was not until 2008 that we were told
    > that the 450-550 ppm stabilization target would be a problem.

    “we”? c’mon. Who is this “we” and why are they ten years late on the uptake?
    Didn’t they pay attention? Or are they falling for the predicted “can’t happen … not happening … not serious … too expensive …. too late” sequence the denial industry uses routinely when warned of consequences?
    Nature 29 October 1998

    Seriously, if you believe “we” weren’t told before 2008 — you’ve been hanging out with the ignoramus-ignorabimus folks. Bad crowd. Avoid’em.

  39. 239
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    Physicist Amory Lovins …
    … received the Blue Planet, Volvo, Onassis, Nissan, Shingo, Zayed, and Mitchell Prizes, MacArthur and Ashoka Fellowships …

    Incredulous emphasis mine. And in his own words, “I’ve worked for major oil companies for about thirty-five years, and they understand how expensive it is to drill for oil.”

    This reminds me of something I wanted to say earlier, after raypierre said this:

    Some think that Lovins’ assumptions are overly optimistic, but I’m so scared of the magnitude of the decarbonization problem I’d like to start with Lovins, and then have the capability to layer on nuclear as needed in case things don’t work out the way Lovins thinks.

    Isn’t it obvious it’s his job to make overly optimistic projections of decarbonization by non-nuclear means? Projections that give fossil fuel revenue-corrupted governments cover in doing exactly what they want to do in order to maintain that revenue? “Physicist”.

    Also see Dr. Hansen’s “insightful cynic” in

  40. 240
    Hank Roberts says:

    Search for “Amory Lovins” “Carrington Event” and you’ll find some of the issues already being addressed toward the notion of creating a new transmission system.

    This stuff ain’t simple.

    “… Today people are starting to think about what will happen, and numerous agencies have published studies that reflect this interest (National Academy of Sciences, JASON, NERC). … research is being conducted to lessen transformer vulnerabilities by developing smaller, more mobile versions ….”

  41. 241
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, from the same PDF:

    “the vulnerability of U.S. nuclear power plants to space weather effects?
    … The Secure Grid 2011 Exercise didn’t explicitly look at this issue. There are a wide range of very severe cascading and secondary effects that can result from a widespread grid blackout but that were beyond the scope
    of the exercise. The assumption is that backup generators will
    be in place, but should they not be, the plants would be extremely vulnerable.
    … FEMA is looking into this issue, but the solution depends on the supply of diesel generators when there is no grid.”

    I say again, the nuclear fission industry should be the best friend of the local renewable power businesses and every nuclear plant should _cover_ its surrounding acreage with renewables of every available type, including experimental ones. Use that buffer zone for something besides Homeland Security bollards. Cover it with solar PV, put in heat storage, put up windmills, do pumped hydro with excess power.

    All that renewable electricity may cost more than nuclear and way more than natural gas generation — while the grid is in place.

    When the grid goes away for months — as it will eventually across wide areas — the fossil fuel infrastructure will stop, transport will stop, diesel won’t be available for every fission plant reliably and continuously for the months it takes to get the grid back.

    At that point, a ring of renewable power around every fission plant and fuel cooling pond will be — invaluable.

    Keep those pumps running for months with the grid down?
    Yes we can.

    Remember, a fission generator can’t produce power to keep itself cool when the grid goes away.

    Hello, Fermi Paradox, is anybody listening?

    Bang on your fission industry contacts to surround every plant and storage pond with renewables, spend the money improving the renewables for the sake of the fission industry. Nobody needs renewable power more than fission plants do — when the grid goes away.

  42. 242
    Hank Roberts says:

    In other news from Cassandra:

    Not a geologist in sight in any of these possible future scenarios.
    I think the “Switch” movie was basically PR for the geology organizations.
    Their motto might as well be “Ya gotta dig it!”

  43. 243
    SecularAnimist says:

    Harry Lynch wrote: “No one has debunked the 100% intermittents theory? … This is James Hansen …”

    James Hansen is a climate scientist. He has no expertise on the subject of energy technologies. I am well aware of his views on energy technologies, which are ill-informed and wrong.

    It’s interesting to note that global warming deniers are also fond of asserting that “the global warming theory” has been “debunked” by someone or other who has no expertise in the relevant science.

  44. 244
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rich Creager wrote: “The political and economic inertia of the trajectory the world is on combine with the short time available to narrow the realistic implementable options to nuclear.”

    If you are saying that Big Energy interests who want to maintain ownership and control of the energy supply, in the form of giant baseload power stations and grids designed solely to transmit power from those stations to end-users, are using their entrenched political power and wealth to LIMIT the options to nuclear, there is certainly some truth in that.

    There are plenty of ongoing attacks on the renewable energy industry, from last year’s conspicuous politically-motivated attacks on R&D funding (e.g. Solyndra), to attacks on the wind energy production tax credit, to attacks on state-level renewable energy portfolios — all of it backed by Big Energy interests, e.g. the Koch brothers and their various organizations.

    If you look at the interests that are pushing nuclear power, you see that there is a lot of overlap with the interests that are resisting the phaseout of fossil fuels or even any regulation of fossil fuels (e.g. stricter standards for mercury emissions, disclosure of fracking chemicals, etc).

  45. 245
    SecularAnimist says:

    Harry Lynch wrote: “Why 30 years? That’s an average of how long it takes to make a partial energy transition, to take a technology from experimental to some level of materiality. That’s also about how long we’ve been building wind and solar seriously. (In truth, it’s been longer, since the 70s. Saying 30 years is giving them a decade.”

    With all due respect, that’s generalities and nonsense. Indeed, as “skeptic” Vaclav Smil says in the passage you quote, “In 2025 modern wind turbines will have been around for some 30 years.”

    Sure, wind turbines have been around for a while — the world’s first grid-connected 1 MW wind turbine was installed in Vermont in 1941. But the modern, high-tech wind turbines that have driven the rapid growth of wind power are much more recent technology. And since they’ve been around — looking at the timeframe Smil mentions — the electricity generated by wind power in the US has grown from 3,288 MWh in 1997, to over 140,000 MWh in 2012 (DOE figures), with most of that growth in just the last few years.

    Moreover, there is no reason to believe that any generic “average of how long it takes to make a partial energy transition” applies uniformly to technologies as different as, for example, coal and nuclear powered centralized power plants on the one hand, and distributed solar PV and wind turbine farms on the other. The issues involved in scaling them up are entirely different, and the growth curves we are seeing in the real world are entirely different. The explosive growth curves of wind, and especially of distributed PV, look a lot more like those of personal computers, cell phones and flat-screen TVs than those of Big Energy technologies like coal and nuclear.

    Indeed, as I noted earlier, according to the most recent FERC report, renewables accounted for 46 percent of all new electrical generation capacity in 2012; in the first quarter of 2013 renewable energy accounted for 82 percent of new capacity; and in March 2013, 100 percent of all new capacity. NO new coal or nuclear generation capacity has been added this year.

    Renewable energy now accounts for almost 16 percent of US generating capacity (8.5 percent from hydro, 7.2 percent from non-hydro), and about 13 percent of net electrical generation. And keep in mind that FERC’s statistics exclude electricity from PV systems below 1 MW in size, which comprise about half of all US solar capacity.

    As Dan Seif from RMI wrote last year, “What’s even more impressive is that non-hydro renewable generation has grown approximately 150 percent since 2004, primarily from utility-scale wind, with the preceding 13 years seeing basically no non-hyrdo growth.”

    If these growth rates continue — and there is every reason that they CAN continue, and indeed can drastically accelerate if we choose to do so — then we can easily blow past that goal of 20 percent wind power.

  46. 246
    Hank Roberts says:

    Hansen is right in that the energy companies aren’t behaving in the way Lovins thinks they should.

    The reason is — adding generating capacity allows raising the price charged consumers. Adding energy efficiency reduces the money consumers pay the company. That’s how the rules are written.

    This isn’t a secret:

    Lovins assumes changing the rules happens, then says that, assuming the rules changed, conservation is easier.

  47. 247
    SecularAnimist says:

    Harry Lynch wrote: “More reasonable studies and real world experience indicate modern grid systems could integrate 20% of intermittents before instability.”

    I note again your consistent use of the word “intermittents” as a pejorative term, instead of the more commonly used term “renewables”. It makes your “political opinion of solar and wind” very clear.

    I also note the begging-the-question fallacy implicit in characterizing as “reasonable” claims that you have not shown to be “reasonable” at all.

    I also note the implication that “modern grid systems” are static, and that development of new energy sources must be limited to accommodate those grid systems, rather than adapting the grid to new technology.

    The reality is that the “real world experience” of nations and states with large amounts of renewable generation has shown that very high levels of renewable energy can be integrated into the grid without causing “instability”. And this is especially true of distributed end-user photovoltaics, whose only impact on the grid is to reduce demand — and usually peak demand — which, if anything, makes the grid operators’ work easier. (Though it does cut into the profits of baseload generators.)

    And of course, our so-called “modern grid systems” are in need of major overhauls and upgrades for many reasons — and the ability to integrate a variety of energy producers at all scales, centralized and distributed, baseload and variable, is certainly one of them. And of course that’s why (as you must be aware) so much work is going into smart grid technology today.

    Again, I’ll offer the analogy with information technology.

    At one time “computer data networks” consisted of large centralized mainframes, connected by dedicated point-to-point lines, that were accessible to end-users with dumb terminals who connected to a mainframe over a dumb phone line and rented clock cycles and bytes of storage. That’s a similar model to the “modern grid systems” you mention.

    But then came the Internet — a massively-interconnected, smart network, able to intelligently connect and transfer information between intelligent “peers” which may be anything from a warehouse-sized Google data center to a wireless handheld device. That’s the sort of model that we need for the 21st century “electricity Intranet”.

    And the reality is, the grid is going to have to adapt, because highly distributed renewables are coming whether the grid operators like it or not — for the simple reason that, as with PCs and cell phones and smart TVs, people want them, and are going to buy them and connect them to the grid.

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  49. 249
    Chris Dudley says:

    Hank (#238),

    That paper considers stabilization targets up to 750 ppm. So, is that your recommendation?

    This paper published in 2008 gives an upper limit to the final stabilization target of 350 ppm.

    That rules out the 450-550 ppm stabilization 2 C warming limit on which many international negotiations have been based and shows that there is no room for increased emissions from China, cuts need to start now. And, since that means greater expense for us than for them in making a rapid transition, since we have to junk prior investments while they need only shift new investments that they planned to make anyway away from fossil fuel energy, we really can’t be subsidizing their intransigence through covering the cost of the damage they are intentionally causing. The cost to the flood insurance and crop insurance programs from climate disasters needs to be made up using import tariffs on Chinese goods.

  50. 250
    SecularAnimist says:

    More on the rapid growth of photovoltaics:

    IEA: Global solar capacity nearing 100GW milestone
    By Nilima Choudhury
    10 Apr 2013

    … 28.4GW of solar PV capacity was installed in 2012, bringing total global capacity to 89.5GW in the 23 countries in the International Energy Agency’s study … another estimated 7GW of capacity is in the pipeline in markets outside the 23 countries looked at by the IEA which would increase the total to 96.5GW … with installations worldwide difficult to quantify with precision, the 100GW milestone has already been passed in the first quarter of this year …

    … China has progressed so quickly that it represented the second largest market in 2012, ahead of Italy or the USA. In terms of total installed capacity it has already reached third position …

    In Europe, for the second year in a row, PV was the first source of electricity installed (power-wise), ahead of wind and gas, and ahead of all other sources of electricity, from coal to nuclear. This is accompanied by several countries where the annual PV contribution to electricity demand has passed the 1% mark, with Italy at the top with at least 5.75% …

    Finally, the report notes that PV has become a major source of electricity extremely rapidly in several countries all over the world. The speed of its development stems from its unique ability to cover most market segments, from the very small individual systems for rural electrification to utility-size power plants (today above 100MW). From the built environment to large ground-mounted installations, PV finds its way, depending on various criteria that make it suitable for most environments.

    The IEA’s “New Snapshot of Global PV 1992-2012” report is available as a PDF here:

    International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power System Programme