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Freeman Dyson’s selective vision

Filed under: — david @ 24 May 2008

In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews two recent ones about global warming, but his review is mostly shaped by his own rather selective vision.

1. Carbon emissions are not a problem because in a few years genetic engineers will develop “carbon-eating trees” that will sequester carbon in soils. Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for. The seasonal cycle in atmospheric CO2 shows that the lifetime of a CO2 molecule in the air before it is exchanged with another in the land biosphere is about 12 years. Therefore if the trees could simply be persuaded to drop diamonds instead of leaves, repairing the damage to the atmosphere could be fast, I suppose. The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us. This is too visionary for me to bet the farm on.

2. Economic estimates of the costs of cutting CO2 emissions are huge. In an absolute sense, this is true, it would be a lot of dollars, but it comes down to a few percent of GDP, which, in an economic system that grows by a few percent per year, just puts off the attainment of a given amount of wealth by a few years. And anyway, business-as-usual will always argue that the alternative would be catastrophic to our economic well being. Remember seat belts? Why is it that Dyson’s remarkably creative powers of vision (carbon-eating trees for example) fail to come up with alternatives to the crude and ugly process of burning coal to generate electricity?

3. The costs of climate change are in the distant future, and therefore should be discounted, in contrast to the hysterical Stern Report. I personally can get my head around the concept of discounting if the time span is short enough that it’s the same person on either end of the transaction, but when the time scales start to reach hundreds and thousands of years, the people who pay in the future are not the same as the ones who benefit now. Remember that the lifetime of the elevated CO2 concentration in the air is different from the lifetime of CO2 to exchange with the biosphere. Release a slug of CO2 and you will increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. The fundamental tenet of civil society is to protect people from harm inflicted by others. Are we a civilized species, or are we not? The question is analogous to using economics to decide whether to abolish slavery. I’m sure it was very costly for the Antebellum Southern U.S. to forego slave labor, but it simply wasn’t an economic question.

4. Majority scientists are contemptuous of those in the minority who don’t believe in the dangers of climate change. I often find myself contemptuous of efforts to misrepresent science to a lay audience. The target audience of denialism is the lay audience, not scientists. It’s made up to look like science, but it’s PR. We have documented Lindzen’s tortured and twisted representation of the science to non-scientists here and here. If Lindzen had a credible argument to support his gut feeling (and apparently Dyson’s), I can promise that I for one would take it seriously. I’ve got kids at home whose future I worry about. If Lindzen were right, no one would be happier about that than me. But I do get contemptuous of BS.

596 Responses to “Freeman Dyson’s selective vision”

  1. 501

    re: 498

    I agree with much of that but you neglected to mention conservation as a source. Conservation is the fastest most immediate source of energy we have. Simply use less. Drive 55 not 75. Turn the thermostat down in winter and up in summer. Turn off the lights. Turn off computers. There are tons of little things and they do add up. I’ve cut my home electric bill by about 25-30% by stuff like that. I’ve started taking the bus to and from work. I get to know people on the bus so I’m making new friends. We walk places that we used to drive to, etc.

  2. 502
    Ken Milne says:

    Barton Paul Levenson Says:

    “Wind and solar are a big part of the solution. Solar thermal power plants (not photovoltaic power plants) store excess heat in molten salt and release it at night; some achieve nearly 24/7 operation that way. And don’t forget geothermal, which is also available 24/7. And regional grids would level out local wind inconsistencies. We need to build a direct current transmission system starting immediately. And let’s not forget ocean thermal power, wave, and tidal, and sustainale biomass fuels (not corn-to-ethanol, obviously). Wind and solar can’t do it all now, but they can do it all eventually if we invest that way.”

    We need to do this, we need to do that. We need to make pigs fly. All of the things you’ve listed above are utopian fantasies (in the context of the next 30 to 40 years). In the same way most contributers to this site decry those who argue against AGW for focusing their knowingly wrong/deceitful/etc. arguments on the unsophisticated masses, many here are similarly hoodwinked by completely unworkable alternative power schemes. Take a moment to reflect on the possibility that you may be as uneducated as to how electricity systems actually work, are paid for, and get permitted and built, as the poor souls “taken in” by Dyson, Spencer, Pielke, et. al. are of climate physics. Is there enough humility here to even consider that?

    [Response: Get a grip. I don’t think anyone here or elsewhere underestimates the scale of the challenge, or even the time it will take to get there. But without a goal, there is no progress at all. Simply saying ‘it can’t be done, it can’t be done’ is pointless, and will, in the end, be proved wrong. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a huge scope for increasing renewables, CHP and increased efficiency – how much and how fast are valid questions. Address those rather than simply declaring that anyone thinking so must be ‘hoodwinked’. Instead of saying it can’t be done, talk about what it would really take. – gavin]

  3. 503
    SecularAnimist says:

    Gavin wrote to Ken Milne: “Instead of saying it can’t be done, talk about what it would really take.”

    Very good advice. And here is a very good example, which I have cited before, of “talking about what it would really take”:

    In an article entitled “A Solar Grand Plan” in the December 2007 issue of Scientific American magazine, authors Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis write:

    The U.S. needs a bold plan to free itself from fossil fuels. Our analysis convinces us that a massive switch to solar power is the logical answer.

    Solar energy’s potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation a year. Converting only 2.5 percent of that radiation into electricity would match the nation’s total energy consumption in 2006.

    To convert the country to solar power, huge tracts of land would have to be covered with photovoltaic panels and solar heating troughs. A direct-current (DC) transmission backbone would also have to be erected to send that energy efficiently across the nation.

    The technology is ready. On the following pages we present a grand plan that could provide 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy (which includes transportation) with solar power by 2050. We project that this energy could be sold to consumers at rates equivalent to today’s rates for conventional power sources, about five cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). If wind, biomass and geothermal sources were also developed, renewable energy could provide 100 percent of the nation’s electricity and 90 percent of its energy by 2100 [emphasis added].

    The federal government would have to invest more than $400 billion over the next 40 years to complete the 2050 plan. That investment is substantial, but the payoff is greater. Solar plants consume little or no fuel, saving billions of dollars year after year. The infrastructure would displace 300 large coal-fired power plants and 300 more large natural gas plants and all the fuels they consume. The plan would effectively eliminate all imported oil, fundamentally cutting U.S. trade deficits and easing political tension in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because solar technologies are almost pollution-free, the plan would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 1.7 billion tons a year, and another 1.9 billion tons from gasoline vehicles would be displaced by plug-in hybrids refueled by the solar power grid. In 2050 U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would be 62 percent below 2005 levels, putting a major brake on global warming.

    This is entirely doable and not at all a “utopian fantasy”. In my view the authors are actually quite conservative and modest in their assessment of the potential of renewables. To put the recommended investment of “$400 billion over the next 40 years” in perspective, the USA currently spends well above $400 billion every year on the military. If we consider the effort to phase out fossil fuels to prevent catastrophic global warming to be the “moral equivalent of war”, then surely we can come up with the required resources.

  4. 504
    Phillip Shaw says:

    Re #502:

    Ken Milne – If I understand correctly, your contention that renewables can never supply more than a small percentage of our total energy needs is based on the intermittent nature of several of the renewable generating technologies. You’re correct that wind only blows when it blows, and the sun only shines for part of each day. But so what?

    What you’re missing is that diversified and distributed renewable energy generation will do a lot towards matching the power generated to the load. And improved and mature energy storage technologies will also enhance the implementation of renewable generating technologies. Unlike fusion power, no fundamental breakthroughs are needed to begin commercializing a number of approaches to energy storage. Developing more advanced and capable energy storage systems is simply an engineering task. Which is something we have a pretty good track record on.

    It is easy for small minds to look at a revolutionary technolgy and see only its shortfalls and limitations. Before WW I powered flight was clearly just a novely because it couldn’t support commercial aviation. In the early 1970s home computers were a silly idea because only a handful of nerds would want to devote the time to building one. When mobile phones first came out they were the size of a small briefcase and very expensive, so any clear-thinking person could see they would only amount to a niche product. But visionary people saw the potential in these, and many other, technologies that are an integral part of our lives today. Hopefully, renewables will become just as ubiquitous. I believe our future, and that of our children, depends on it.

  5. 505
    SecularAnimist says:

    Phillip Shaw wrote: “… no fundamental breakthroughs are needed to begin commercializing a number of approaches to energy storage. Developing more advanced and capable energy storage systems is simply an engineering task.”

    Very true. One of my favorite energy storage technologies, which is not as widely discussed as it should be, is flywheel systems, like for example those made by Beacon Power. They are nontoxic, low-maintenance and reliable, and scalable from small, distributed, residential-scale systems up to multi-megawatt utility scale installations.

    Another attractive solution is Compressed Air Energy Storage. There are compressed air energy storage plants already operating in Germany, Alabama and Ohio that store energy in the form of compressed air pumped into underground caverns, from which it is released to drive generators when needed. This concept has even been scaled down to mobile applications, i.e. the “air car” whose engine is powered by compressed air stored in a high-tech, ultra-light onboard tank. It seems to me that if this technology can work with the constraints and challenges of mobile applications, it should be relatively easy to engineer CAES systems for distributed, smaller-scale fixed applications, e.g. residential & commercial buildings.

    In addition to deploying wind, solar thermal, and solar photovoltaic generation and energy storage technologies, we also definitely need an upgraded, next-generation “smart” electrical grid that is designed from the ground up to handle electricity generation from both centralized and decentralized, large-scale and small-scale, baseline and intermittent sources: an electricity “Internet”, which Al Gore has referred to as the “Electranet”. The existing grid is in bad shape anyway and needs major maintenance and upgrades, so while we are at it we might as well do it in the right way, so enable the distributed electricity production systems of the future.

  6. 506
    Chris says:

    Re #502 It’s ironic that on this thread which is about (partly) Freeman Dyson’s utopian pie-in-the-sky notion of “carbon-eating” trees, you are describing as “utopian” in the “pigs-might-fly” sense, the implementation of already mature technologies to the widescale reduction in fossil fuel use.

    Now it may be “utopian” in the political sense. But it’s not utopian in the scientific sense. It’s a question of will. We could, given the will (encompassing the widespread understanding that dramatic reductions of fossil fuel emissions are important), convert to low carbon energy production over the next several decades. Much of the technology is already there, and it will become better developed as time passes. There’s nothing utopian about that. It’s an entirely practical matter……

    …unlike Freeman Dyson’s utopian “solution” which is an entirely non-practical matter!

  7. 507
    Ron Taylor says:

    Ken Milne, we have to understand that there are certain things about global warming that we cannot control, in particular, the laws of physics. They are what they are and, as a result, we have a serious problem. The only thing we can control is how we respond to the problem. These “utopian ideas” you refer to represent possible parts of the solution. When President Kennedy said we would walk on the moon within ten years, many in the aerospace industry thought that was a utopian dream. But, guess what? And now we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on this problem. We cannot wish it away.

  8. 508
    Rod B says:

    Barton (498), why a DC transmission system now? If you’re considering converting the grid and distribution to DC you just bought a mouthful that’s bigger than anything else discussed. If just the transmission, I don’t see the effficienccies or advantage.

  9. 509

    RE economics and the environment, it must be noted that the environment (land, water, air, inorganic substances, life) is fundamental, while the economy (production and exchange/distribution of goods and services) is contingent. Animals do fine without economies, as did our prehuman ancestors, but no one can exist without the environment.

    Environmental anthropologist, Roy Rappaport, writes how maladaptive it is that (neoclassical) economics, the contingent, has usurped the status of fundamental. He writes re the reduction of all qualitative differences into quantitative monetary forms:

    “The world upon which the monetary metric is imposed is not as simple as the metric itself. Plants, animals, and societies are complex beyond full human comprehension. To remain healthy, each requires a great variety of distinct materials, generally derived from a variety of sources…Monetization, however, forces the great range of unique and distinct materials and processes that together sustain or even constitute life into an arbitrary and specious equivalence. Phenomena that relate to each other essentially in terms of their qualitative distinctiveness are represented and understood in terms of a logic that reduces all qualitative distinctions to mere quantitative differences, a logic that, as it were, attempts to “bottom line” the world.

    From Roy A. Rappaport, 1993, “Distinguished Lecture in General Anthropology: The Anthropology of Trouble,” American Anthropologist, 95(2):295-303; available on JSTOR (see esp. pp. 298-300).

    My thinking is that a BAU path would eventually send the economy into shambles, sooner probably than later, since a healthy economy IS contingent upon a healthy environment–not to mention kill off a lot of life. The denialist economic arguments sort of remind me of the man up in the tree cutting off the branch he’s on, then crashing down with it.

  10. 510
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Re #509, Lynn,
    The way I figure neoclassical economics is that it is a theory or logical framework which has the purpose of providing a disguise for social policies which have the aim of facilitating the right of the strong to take from the weak, and for protecting those gains. It (neoclassical economics) is quite effective in its role, effectively tying people up in the theory allowing the taking to proceed with hardly a murmur of complaint.

  11. 511

    Re 502:

    What you’re missing is that diversified and distributed renewable energy generation will do a lot towards matching the power generated to the load. And improved and mature energy storage technologies will also enhance the implementation of renewable generating technologies. Unlike fusion power, no fundamental breakthroughs are needed to begin commercializing a number of approaches to energy storage. Developing more advanced and capable energy storage systems is simply an engineering task. Which is something we have a pretty good track record on.

    There are more problems than you can shake a stick at with distributed generation. A major reason the grid is workable is that there are so few players in the generation market. This points to larger scale storage and generation solutions, not distributed storage and generation.

    Re 508:

    Barton (498), why a DC transmission system now? If you’re considering converting the grid and distribution to DC you just bought a mouthful that’s bigger than anything else discussed. If just the transmission, I don’t see the effficienccies or advantage.

    Because the AC grid must be synchronized at all times and DC grid interties don’t. It’s a great idea for grid interties, but a lousy idea for much of anything else.

  12. 512
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #492 [Rod B] Since the moderators have reasonably called time on the corporate ethics discussion, if you want my response, please email me: ngotts at gn dot apc dot org

  13. 513
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #507 [Ron Taylor]
    Excellent point about the moon landing programme. And when you compare the importance of Apollo (basically a bit of flag-waving) with that of avoiding catastrophic climate change, you really have to wonder how anyone can fail to see the necessity of governments overriding BAU.

  14. 514
    JCH says:

    Wow, T. Boone Pickens is a utopian. Who knew?

    For those who do not know about T. Boone, think J.R. Ewing, Jr.

  15. 515
  16. 516

    Re: 513

    Excellent point about the moon landing programme. And when you compare the importance of Apollo (basically a bit of flag-waving) with that of avoiding catastrophic climate change, you really have to wonder how anyone can fail to see the necessity of governments overriding BAU.

    Governments and individuals are already doing quite a bit. Some of it is a bit misguided, like corn-based ethanol, but there are a lot of programs being put into place that will help avert BAU in the States.

    For example, the City of Austin has implemented a program where all of their buildings will be powered by renewable energy soon. West Texas is routinely generating a significant amount of the power required by ERCOT from wind. Solar rebate programs for business and residential customers are gaining popularity. Organizations such as NativeEnergy and their related CoolDriver program are raising money to build wind and biogas to electricity through the Northern Plains. Companies now compete to be “Green”. Chevy has given the official go-ahead on the “Volt” program.

    The major players, at this point, who are working to realize BAU are now China and India. Both countries have horrible problems with air pollution and its likely that air pollution concerns there will work against the current roll-out of coal fired electric generation, in favor of either hydro (China has some — see Three Rivers Dam) and nuclear (India has a thorium to uranium breeder program in the works).

    The nail in BAU’s coffin will likely be massive solar thermal in the American Southwest. Programs are underway to prove out commercial scale solar there. We have a lot of potential for solar thermal here in the States because of the southwestern desert, but we’re not the only country with unused spaces open to the sun — think about warehouse rooftops anywhere there is a warehouse or office complex. And while distributed generation is a disaster for grid stability and management, self-sufficiency is a different matter. Energy self-sufficiency, at the level of the small consumer (

  17. 517
    Nick Gotts says:

    FurryCatHerder “There are more problems than you can shake a stick at with distributed generation. A major reason the grid is workable is that there are so few players in the generation market.”

    The solution’s obvious: nationalise the energy supply industry.

  18. 518
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (505), Admittedly I haven’t done the calculations, but intuitively some of the storage schemes seem fantastical. What does a multi-megawatt flywheel look like? What’s its size, weight and foundation? For how long will it produce multi-megawatts? Same question for what I might install in my house/yard, though that’s a little easier to imagine. In addition, where would I put it (garage, yard, attic, etc)? Is it noisy like (worse?) my washing machine? How often would I have to grease the bearings?

    Do you have any figures (or a reference to) on the compressed air scheme? An example of how much pressure and how much mass required to deliver how many watts for how long from what sized tank?

  19. 519
    SecularAnimist says:

    FurryCatherder wrote: “There are more problems than you can shake a stick at with distributed generation. A major reason the grid is workable is that there are so few players in the generation market. This points to larger scale storage and generation solutions, not distributed storage and generation … distributed generation is a disaster for grid stability and management …”

    Distributed generation and storage are coming, so the grid will have to be updated to accommodate them. Progress is already being made in Europe, particularly in Germany where feed-in tariffs have spurred the rapid growth of small-scale photovoltaic installations that feed power into the grid.

    At one time, computer networks were designed to link dumb terminals to mainframes, and could not very well handle decentralized, distributed peer-to-peer communications where each host has its own CPU and storage and can act as a client or a server or both simultaneously. So we invented the Internet. We need a comparable revolution in the electric grid. Al Gore has suggested that this might be a worthy project for DARPA (which “invented” the Internet).

    Having said that, I agree with you that large-scale solar thermal generation in the southwest USA will be — should be — HUGE. That’s the cornerstone of the “Solar Grand Plan” described in the Scientific American article I linked to yesterday. But small-scale distributed generation from wind turbines and rooftop PV scattered all over the country will also be a major component of the energy supply of the post-carbon future, and the grid will have to be able to handle it.

  20. 520
    Rod B says:

    Martin and FurryCatherder, I understand and concur in the advantages of DC transmission. My point was the advantage is highly limited by mostly very long distances, with no intermediate stops and where eventually AC losses exceed DC losses. Plus as FurryCatherder points out it is infinitely easier to synchronize! Though even that might go away with a jillion distributed sources. Oh, yeah. It’s easier to connect with photovoltic stuff.

  21. 521
    sidd says:

    Re: electric grid
    I have found a useful discussion albeit from four years ago:
    “Transforming The Electric Infrastructure”
    Gellings and Yeager, Physics Today, Dec 2004

    I like the idea in Fig 6, of microrings with distributed generation and storage.

    Towards the end an estimate is given that an additional investment of (US)$8-10E9 annually is required for implementation of the ideas in the article, resulting in a rise in electric rates of 3-5%. A timescale of a decade is mentioned in the next para. This is contrasted with the $18-20E9 annual current expenditure for demand growth and failure replacement.


  22. 522
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Rod B:

    My point was the advantage is highly limited by mostly
    very long distances, with no intermediate stops and where eventually AC
    losses exceed DC losses.

    But that’s not a limitation, it’s where HVDC is most useful! It’s not in and of itself a solution, but an enabler for solutions. Like solar in the sunny SW US, or Mediterranean Europe, far from most consumers. Or OTEC power plants on the high seas, with HVDC links on the ocean floor.

    Note that HVDC could even be a substitute for storage, if generation capacity is placed in different time zones from the consumers. With a typical loss figure of 3% per 1000 km this is a real possibility.

  23. 523
    JCH says:

    I’m pretty much convinced that compressed air is going to end up being very useful.

    Rod B, have you ever heard of IOWA?

  24. 524
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rod B, for more info on utility-scale flywheel technology, take a look around the Beacon Power website. They have just received regulatory approval to build a 20-megawatt flywheel frequency regulation plant in Stephentown, New York.

    For more info on compressed air energy storage, take a look around the Air Car website.

  25. 525
    David B. Benson says:

    FurryCatherder (511) — Multiple smaller producers promote grid stability given the proper regulatory and control environment. This is, in effect, already here in the Pacific Northwest and will continue to grow by such small increments. I assure you the regional power companies are on top of it.

  26. 526
    Rod B says:

    Nick (517) if nationalizing the power industry was meant to be a humorous fix to FurryCatHerder’s stated problem with highly distributed power sources, I missed it and apologize. If serious, could you offer one clue as to how nationalizing would help in any way? Are there stealth folks in the Fed that know a lot more about and can change the physics and mathematics of the power network’s synchronization with varying loads. sources, and sinks than folks in the power industry?

  27. 527
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (519), your thrust is probably correct, but it’s not a good idea to downplay the extremely serious technical hurdles that have to be jumped in a fully distributed power distributed system. Routing packets of data is a far different process from the reflowing of electrons and electric fields, and you can not ignore the technical downsides that stem from the peer-to-peer decoupled nationwide/global wide computer networks. Probably ought to be pursued, however, despite the difficulties, because that’s the road we’re evidently going down. But don’t expect Algore to wave his magic wand.

  28. 528
    Nick Gotts says:

    #526 (Rod) An essential services network (water, power, telecoms, public transport) is best run as a single entity, with the primary aim of avoiding breakdowns. If multiple competitors are involved, they spend half their energy trying to do each other down.

  29. 529
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod, don’t get hung up on the political buzzword.
    This is physics; legislation failed to change it:

    American Institute of Physics
    Eric J. Lerner
    What’s wrong with the electric grid?

    ——excerpt follows; click link for full article—-

    The warnings were certainly there. In 1998, former utility executive John Casazza predicted that “blackout risks will be increased” if plans for deregulating electric power went ahead. And the warnings continued to be heard from other energy experts and planners.
    …. In the four years between the issuance of Order 888 and its full implementation, engineers began to warn that the new rules ignored the physics of the grid. …At the same time, data needed to predict and react to system stress—such as basic information on the quantity of energy flows—began disappearing, treated by utilities as competitive information and kept secret…. The solution advocated by deregulation critics would revise the rules to put them back into accord with the grid physics.”
    Please, read it.

  30. 530
    Rod B says:

    Martin (522), I mostly agree. I was commenting on what I though was a Barton proposal to replace the grid en masse with DC. Maybe I missed what he meant.

  31. 531
    Rod B says:

    JCH (523) says, “…Rod B, have you ever heard of IOWA?”

    Matter of fact I grew up in Iowa. The article was interesting. It doesn’t seem to have greatly improved efficiencies and the heating of the released compressed air taints of defearing the purpose. But it’s an interesting start and, most important, seems to work, at least on paper.

    Most of Iowa is far more interested in ethanol.

    [Response: Something I’ve never understood is why Iowa isn’t more interested in biodiesel from soybeans. It’s not the ideal oil crop, but between lower fertilizer usage and lower processing energy, it would appear to be a far better energy crop than corn. Is there some reason these guys couldn’t grow soybeans instead? Agreed, there are problems will all current biofuel crops, but between biodiesel and corn ethanol, biodiesal would seem to have all the advantages. –raypierre]

  32. 532
    Rod B says:

    David (525), sounds interesting. But also curious since it seems to run counter to the general knowledge and mathematics of multi-connected peer-to-peer networks.

  33. 533
    Ron Taylor says:

    Rod, how interesting, you and James Hansen both from Iowa.

    Raypierre, your comment about soybeans raises a question for me. Would it be possible to separate the protein and oil in the soybeans so that the primary food value (protein) could be conserved, even though the oil is used for biofuel?

  34. 534
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (524), thanks for the links. I would suggest that flywheel frequency regulation (actually short-term load/demand regulation) even at multi-megawatts for presumably a few milliseconds, maybe a second or two, is a long long way from a power supply as such. But it’s interesting, and a start.

  35. 535
    Rod B says:

    Nick (528), that concept I agree with…

  36. 536
    Rod B says:

    Hank (529) and a ps to Nick, surprise, maybe, but I agree with you. As you may know I am an avid supporter of capitalism, free private enterprise, competition and market forces. But I also understand that they all need help sometimes, and don’t work with a damn in a case or two. My feeling was that the going hell-bent for leather down the competition path for the power generation industry was totally misdirected by politicos jumping on the buzzwords (“competition”; “for the children”) and chasing a pot of gold that they new nothing about — and didn’t care. Other than in certain limited areas I don’t believe competition lends itself to the power industry. [note they didn’t deregulate the industry, the did the generation part — like deregulating automobiles, but only the engines] Private enterprise works, but only if smartly regulated. Power generation competition has worked better here in Texas than most other places (so far… knock on wood), I believe, because they established a State-ran grid controller, ERCOT, which does not have/allow the problems you cite (though ERCOT did get caught in a little shenanigans a while back — only human, I guess). I don’t think they own transmission facilities, but they pretty much run them for about 80% of Texas’ power.

  37. 537
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod, again, read about how the grid used to be managed. A national grid, or a statewide grid with controlled and limited outside links, is not peer-to-peer — it’s a single physical machine. That’s what federal deregulation tried to change by legislation. Might as well define pi equal to three.

    Look, I know nothing about this but what’s published. You can read it for yourself. It’s not hard — electrons flow as physics describes, not as financiers wanted to believe they would when they changed the law to make money faster.

  38. 538
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS — here, Rod. FERC has been trying to solve the problems created and described in that article ever since it became obvious what was wrong. Here’s their current plan as of March of this year:

    “The major reforms are:
    1. Greater consistency and transparency in ATC calculation.
    2. Open, coordinated and transparent planning on both a local and regional level.
    3. Reform of energy and generator imbalance penalties….. “

  39. 539

    How about moringa trees for biofuels? They grow in the lower latitudes of the world in drought or flood conditions in poor soil, and they take up very little space, shooting up vertically some 30 feet within a couple of years. A killing frost will make them die down, but they will again shoot up 30 feet within a couple of years.

    Their seeds can be used for biofuel, as well as their cellulose woody pods and branches. They grow from branch cuttings as well as seeds and propogate like weeds.

    Mainly they have been used for food (leaves and drumstick fruits), and have triple the calcium of milk, and more protein too. As fodder, the leaves increase milk production in cows by 60%. It’s also a medicinal herb.

    We have about 20 in your back yard, but people here in the US don’t know about them. We’d like to promote them more, but don’t have much time.

    See the PowerPoint (right column) at

  40. 540

    Nick Gotts writes:

    The solution’s obvious: nationalise the energy supply industry.

    As a teenager I supported that idea, but in college I studied economics and history.

    To nationalize an industry is to make it a state-supported monopoly, and monopolies are inefficient by definition. All the industries in the old USSR were state-owned and operated, and they trashed the environment of those countries for decades to come. Nationalization doesn’t really help anything.

  41. 541


    The physics of electric grid management doesn’t care about free market competition or not. However, having a smaller number of players does mean that changes in load and generation don’t require calling or signaling or anything else-ing some huge number of distributed players.

  42. 542
    Rod B says:

    raypierre (531), soybeans historically have been the close second major crop in Iowa, with sorghum or others a distant third. The rough farm standard was plant half corn and half soybeans (maybe 2/3 – 1/3 depending on relative price) and rotate them every other year. (You’re correct: legume soybeans provide their own fertilizer and are a good soil replenisher for the hoggish corn.) Historically corn had 3 times the yield (bu/acre) and ~ 1/3 the price, though corn yield has improved a little more than soybeans over the years. My guess is that corn is now predominate strictly based on the market. Farmers are far and away more focused on selling high yield crops for as much as they can, long-term saving the planet not so much. When and if the rest of the world demands and is willing to pay for a lot more soybeans for biofuel/diesel, they’ll plant and grow more of them.

  43. 543
    Rod B says:

    Ron (533), I don’t know if protein and oil are easily separated, but don’t discount the strong semand for the oil in foodstuffs.

  44. 544
    JCH says:

    I’ve read that the corn rotation has gone from CS CS CS to CCS CCS CCS. The income from corn offsets the lower yield in the 2nd year of corn.

    But the real problem is procreation. Iowa farm boys would not know what to do with a soybean-fed girl.

  45. 545
    Ike Solem says:

    There is a pretty good discussion of small-scale biofuel production at

    This is a good solution for Third World agricultural economies, particularly in an era of rising energy prices and steadily increasing global warming.

    However, large-scale biofuel production for export is not a good idea, as these small countries are also desperately in need of basic foodstuffs. What they do in India is to grow tough biofuel crops on marginal land or on the edges of agricultural fields.

    In the U.S., currently about 20% of corn/soy is for export – but if all countries adopt practices of local-self reliance for food production (a very good idea!) and also raise import barriers to U.S. crop exports (which are subsidized to the tune of ~30 billion a year by the U.S. government), than that excess production can be fed into biofuel.

    The real future of technically advanced biofuel production is going to be algae – they grow the fastest, they have the highest yield by far, and their biochemical constituents (50% oil by weight) are quickly and easily converted to petroleum-like constituents (indeed, that’s where petroleum came from in the first place.) Algal biofuel research is completely unsupported by the U.S. federal government, however – the NREL’s algal biofuel program was cancelled in 1997, and no new source of funding has emerged. That’s just another example of the power that the fossil fuel lobby has over much technical scientific research funding in the U.S. Billions for “carbon sequestration” schemes like the FutureGen flop, but nothing for the real solutions.

    Technically speaking, the downstream oil refinery business can do the exact same things with biofuels that they do with petroleum – cracking, blending, etc. The only ones who would lose out in this scenario are those involved in the “upstream petroleum business” – which needs to be phased out.

    The bottom line in all this is that there’s only one way to slow global warming, and that is to halt all fossil fuel emissions.

    How to replace that energy source is a separate issue – but simple physical arguments as well as numerous engineering demonstrations have proved, once and for all, that global human energy needs can be met with a combination of sunlight, wind, and photosynthesis, with no need for fossil fuels whatsoever (or nuclear, for that matter).

  46. 546
    SecularAnimist says:

    I submit for discussion the following commentary on nuclear, wind, solar and efficiency from renewable energy & efficiency guru Amory Lovins, originally published in the May 26 2008 issue of Newsweek:

    Missing the Market Meltdown
    Renewable energy is attracting Wall Street but nuclear power isn’t. Why? Simple economics.
    By Amory B. Lovins
    May 26, 2008

    Capitalists have already scuttled Patrick Moore’s claimed nuclear revival. New U.S. subsidies of about $13 billion per plant (roughly a plant’s capital cost) haven’t lured Wall Street to invest. Instead, the decentralized competitors to nuclear power that Moore derides are making more global electricity than nuclear plants are, and are growing 20 to 40 times faster.

    In 2007, decentralized renewables worldwide attracted $71 billion in private capital. Nuclear got zero. Why? Economics. The nuclear construction costs that Moore omits are astronomical and soaring; low fuel costs will soon rise two-to fivefold. “Negawatts”—saved electricity—cost five to 10 times less and are getting cheaper. So are most renewables. Negawatts and “micro-power”— renewables other than big hydro, and cogenerating electricity together with useful heat—are also at or near customers, avoiding grid costs, losses and failures (which cause 98 to 99 percent of blackouts).

    The unreliability of renewable energy is a myth, while the unreliability of nuclear energy is real. Of all U.S. nuclear plants built, 21 percent were abandoned as lemons; 27 percent have failed for a year or more at least once. Even successful reactors must close for refueling every 17 months for 39 days. And when shut by grid failure, they can’t quickly restart. Wind farms don’t do that.

    Variable but forecastable renewables (wind and solar cells) are very reliable when integrated with each other, existing supplies and demand. For example, three German states were more than 30 percent wind-powered in 2007—and more than 100 percent in some months. Mostly renewable power generally needs less backup than utilities already bought to combat big coal and nuclear plants’ intermittence.

    Micropower delivers a sixth of total global electricity, a third of all new electricity and from a sixth to more than half of all electricity in 12 industrial countries (in the United States it’s only 6 percent). In 2006, the global net capacity added by nuclear power was only 83 percent of that added by solar cells, 10 percent that of wind power and 3 percent that of micropower. China’s distributed renewables grew to seven times its nuclear capacity and grew seven times faster. In 2007, the United States, China and Spain each added more wind capacity than the world added nuclear capacity. Wind power added 30 percent of new U.S. and 40 percent of EU capacity, because it’s two to three times cheaper than new nuclear power. Which part of this doesn’t Moore understand?

    The punch line: nuclear expansion buys two to 10 times less climate protection per dollar, far slower than its winning competitors. Spending a dollar on new nuclear power rather than on negawatts thus has a worse climate effect than spending that dollar on new coal power. Attention, Dr. Moore: you’re making climate change worse.

    Lovins is chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute. An expanded version of this essay is available at: /images/PDFs/Newsletter/ NLRMIspring08.pdf.

  47. 547
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re: soy beans, protein and oil. After the oil is expressed from the soy beans, what is left is a high protein meal that is mostly used for animal feed. In some cases, additional processing is done–I think this is where soy protein isolate comes from.

  48. 548
    Richard Ordway says:

    David, could you give more specifics from peer reviewed studies about why “plastic trees” would not work?
    I’m not for or against them. I just have not read enough about them. Wally Broecker is currently pushing them.

  49. 549
    David B. Benson says:

    Rod B (532) — The Western Power Grid of course obeys Kirchhoff’s laws, as do all synchronously rotating AC power networks. There are many big suppliers into the network, mostly hydro around here. The smaller producers supply stability in that so-called peaking power is more easily obtainable. In addition, unscheduled outages from smaller producers have a much smaller effect than the same from larger producers.

    The control problem was largely solved some decades ago by the use of centralized computing and control centers. BPA’s is especially large and they even have a back-up far away from the main site. Avista, my local supplier, does much the same with a control center and a back-up site.

    The main challenge left appears to be establishing the proper regulatory environment so that the transmission companies obtain enough income to (convince investors to) invest in additional capacity.

    Raypierre — The nation’s farmers have planted about 6% less maize than last year, the balance mainly going into soybeans. I suspect that the price of nitrogen fertilizer had something to do with all those individual decisions.

  50. 550

    RE mitigation in the future being cheaper, I think the more appropriate wisdom is “a stitch in time saves nine.”