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A biased economic analysis of geoengineering

Filed under: — group @ 11 August 2009 - (Español)

Guest commentary by Alan Robock – Rutgers University

Bjorn Lomborg’s Climate Consensus Center just released an un-refereed report on geoengineering, An Analysis of Climate Engineering as a Response to Global Warming, by J Eric Bickel and Lee Lane. The “consensus” in the title of Lomborg’s center is based on a meeting of 50 economists last year. The problem with allowing economists to decide the proper response of society to global warming is that they base their analysis only on their own quantifications of the costs and benefits of different strategies. In this report, discussed below, they simply omit the costs of many of the potential negative aspects of producing a stratospheric cloud to block out sunlight or cloud brightening, and come to the conclusion that these strategies have a 25-5000 to 1 benefit/cost ratio. That the second author works for the American Enterprise Institute, a lobbying group that has been a leading global warming denier, is not surprising, except that now they are in favor of a solution to a problem they have claimed for years does not exist.

Geoengineering has come a long way since first discussed here three years ago. [Here I use the term “geoengineering” to refer to “solar radiation management” (SRM) and not to carbon capture and sequestration (called “air capture” in the report), a related topic with quite different issues.] In a New Scientist interview, John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, says geoengineering has to be examined as a possible response to global warming, but that we can make no such determination now. A two-day conference on geoengineering organized by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences was held in June, 2009, with an opening talk by the President, Ralph Cicerone. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) has just issued a policy statement on geoengineering, which urges cautious consideration, more research, and appropriate restrictions. But all this attention comes with the message that we know little about the efficacy, costs, and problems associated with geoengineering suggestions, and that much more study is needed.

Bickel and Lane, however, do not hesitate to write a report that is rather biased in favor of geoengineering using SRM, by emphasizing the low cost and dismissing the many possible negative aspects. They use calculations with the Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy (DICE) economic model to make the paper seem scientific, but there are many inherent assumptions, and they up-front refuse to present their results in terms of ranges or error bars. Specific numbers in their conclusions make the results seem much more certain than they are. While they give lip service to possible negative consequences of geoengineering, they refuse to quantify them. Indeed, the purpose of new research is to do just that, but the tone of this report is to claim that cooling the planet will have overall benefits, which CAN be quantified. The conclusions and summary of the report imply much more certainty as to the net benefits of SRM than is really the case.

My main areas of agreement with this report are that global warming is an important, serious problem, that SRM with stratospheric aerosols or cloud brightening would not be expensive, and that we indeed need more research into geoengineering. The authors provide a balanced introduction to the issues of global warming and the possible types of geoengineering.

But Bickel and Lane ignore the effects of ocean acidification from continued CO2 emissions, dismissing this as a lost cause. Even without global warming, reducing CO2 emissions is needed to do the best we can to save the ocean. The costs of this continuing damage to the planet, which geoengineering will do nothing to address, are ignored in the analysis in this report. And without mitigation, SRM would need to be continued for hundreds of years. If it were stopped, by the loss of interest or means by society, the resulting rapid warming would be much more dangerous than the gradual warming we are now experiencing.

Bickel and Lane do not even mention several potential negative effects of SRM, including getting rid of blue skies, huge reductions in solar power from systems using direct solar radiation, or ruining terrestrial optical astronomy. They imply that SRM technologies will work perfectly, and ignore unknown unknowns. Not one cloud has ever been artificially brightened by injection of sea salt aerosols, yet this report claims to be able to quantify the benefits and the costs to society of cloud brightening.

They also imply that stratospheric geoengineering can be tested at a small scale, but this is not true. Small injections of SO2 into the stratosphere would actually produce small radiative forcing, and we would not be able to separate the effects from weather noise. The small volcanic eruptions of the past year (1.5 Tg SO2 from Kasatochi in 2008 and 1 Tg SO2 from Sarychev in 2009, as compared to 7 Tg SO2 from El Chichón in 1982 and 20 Tg SO2 from Pinatubo in 1991) have produced stratospheric clouds that can be well-observed, but we cannot detect any climate impacts. Only a large-scale stratospheric injection could produce measurable impacts. This means that the path they propose would lead directly to geoengineering, even just to test it, and then it would be much harder to stop, what with commercial interests in continuing (e.g., Star Wars, which has not even ever worked).

Bickel and Lane also ignore several seminal papers on geoengineering that present much more advanced scientific results than the older papers they cite. In particular, they ignore Tilmes et al. (2008), Robock et al. (2008), Rasch et al. (2008), and Jones et al. (2009).

With respect to ozone, they dismiss concerns about ozone depletion and enhanced UV by citing Wigley (2006) and Crutzen (2006), but ignore the results of Tilmes et al. (2008), who showed that the effects would prolong the ozone hole for decades and that deployment of stratospheric aerosols in a couple decades would not be safe as claimed here. Bickel and Lane assert, completely incorrectly, “On its face, though, it does not appear that the ozone issue would be likely to invalidate the concept of stratospheric aerosols.”

With respect to an Arctic-only scheme, they suggest in several places that it would be possible to control Arctic climate based on the results of Caldeira and Wood (2008) who artificially reduce sunlight in a polar cap in their model (the “yarmulke method”), whereas Robock et al. (2008) showed with a more realistic model that explicitly treats the distribution and transport of stratospheric aerosols, that the aerosols could not be confined to just the Arctic, and such a deployment strategy would affect the summer Asian monsoon, reducing precipitation over China and India. And Robock et al. (2008) give examples from past volcanic eruptions that illustrate this effect, such as the pattern of precipitation reduction after the 1991 Pinatubo eruption (Trenberth and Dai, 2007):

With respect to cloud brightening, Bickel and Lane ignore the Jones et al. (2009) results that cloud brightening would mainly cool the oceans and not affect land temperature much, so that it is an imperfect method at best to counter global warming. Furthermore Jones et al. (2009) found that cloud brightening over the South Atlantic would produce severe drought over the Amazon, destroying the tropical forest.

They also ignore a huge class of ethical and world governance issues. Whose hand would be on the global thermostat? Who would trust military aircraft or a multi-national geoengineering company to have the interests of the people of the planet foremost?

They do not seem to realize that volcanic eruptions affect climate change because of sulfate aerosols produced from sulfur dioxide gas injections into the stratosphere, the same that is proposed for SRM, and not by larger ash particles that fall out quickly after and eruption and do not cause climate change.

They dismiss air capture (“air capture technologies do not appear as promising as solar radiation management from a technical or a cost perspective”) but ignore the important point that it would have few of the potential side effects of SRM. Air capture would just remove the cause of global warming in the first place, and the only side effects would be in the locations where the CO2 would be sequestered.

For some reason, they insist on using the wrong units for energy flux (W) instead of the correct units of W/m^2, and then mix them in the paper. I cannot understand why they choose to make it so confusing.

The potential negative consequences of stratospheric SRM were clearly laid out by Robock (2008) and updated by Robock et al. (2009), which still lists 17 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea. One of those important possible consequences, the threat to the water supply for agriculture and other human uses, has been emphasized in a recent Science article by Gabi Hegerl and Susan Solomon.

Robock et al. (2009) also lists some benefits from SRM, including increased plant productivity and an enhanced CO2 sink from vegetation that grows more when subject to diffuse radiation, as has been observed after every recent large volcanic eruption. But the quantification of these and other geoengineering benefits, as well as the negative aspects, awaits more research.

It may be that the benefits of geoengineering will outweigh the negative aspects, and that most of the problems can be dealt with, but the paper from Lomborg’s center ignores the real consensus among all responsible geoengineering researchers. The real consensus, as expressed at the National Academy conference and in the AMS statement, is that mitigation needs to be our first and overwhelming response to global warming, and that whether geoengineering can even be considered as an emergency measure in the future should climate change become too dangerous is not now known. Policymakers will only be able to make such decisions after they see results from an intensive research program. Lomborg’s report should have stopped at the need for a research program, and not issued its flawed and premature conclusions.


Jones, A., J. Haywood, and O. Boucher 2009: Climate impacts of geoengineering marine stratocumulus clouds, J. Geophys. Res., 114, D10106, doi:10.1029/2008JD011450.

Rasch, Philip J., Simone Tilmes, Richard P. Turco, Alan Robock, Luke Oman, Chih-Chieh (Jack) Chen, Georgiy L. Stenchikov, and Rolando R. Garcia, 2008: An overview of geoengineering of climate using stratospheric sulphate aerosols. Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. A., 366, 4007-4037, doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0131.

Robock, Alan, 2008: 20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea. Bull. Atomic Scientists, 64, No. 2, 14-18, 59, doi:10.2968/064002006. PDF file Roundtable discussion of paper

Robock, Alan, Luke Oman, and Georgiy Stenchikov, 2008: Regional climate responses to geoengineering with tropical and Arctic SO2 injections. J. Geophys. Res., 113, D16101, doi:10.1029/2008JD010050. PDF file

Robock, Alan, Allison B. Marquardt, Ben Kravitz, and Georgiy Stenchikov, 2009: The benefits, risks, and costs of stratospheric geoengineering. Submitted to Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2009GL039209. PDF file

Tilmes, S., R. Müller, and R. Salawitch, 2008: The sensitivity of polar ozone depletion to proposed geoengineering schemes, Science, 320(5880), 1201-1204, doi:10.1126/science.1153966.

Trenberth, K. E., and A. Dai (2007), Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L15702, doi:10.1029/2007GL030524.

329 Responses to “A biased economic analysis of geoengineering”

  1. 201
    Patrick 027 says:

    Actually, for paying a utility for wind power, the analogous behavior would be paying for a wind power supply to the grid, selling that to the utility at the grid prices, and buying electricity from the grid at grid prices. If the wind power is more expensive, you’d have a financial loss, which is what you are paying for reducing the CO2 output, and roughly equal to the extra amount you should pay to the utility for providing the same wind power (with some adjustments – a little extra for the convenience that they are managing it, with some savings if their economy of scale and experience, etc, allows them to do it more efficiently).

  2. 202
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Regarding Jim Bullis’ remarks about drag, it’s not really even necessary to do the numbers to understand his basic point. Jump on a bicycle and try pedaling at 10mph. Next try 25mph. It requires a highly conditioned rider to travel for any distance on a bicycle moving at 25MPH. What changed?*

    The concept appears to exceed the practical elasticity of our human nature but it’s pretty reasonable to surmise that for many vehicular miles traveled a 30mph limit would cause little or no impact on “quality time”. Because we insist on moving to and from work in large herds crammed onto roadways that are too large most of any 24 hour period and too small for the balance of time remaining in a day, much commuter traffic moves at aerodynamically efficient speeds. Unfortunately due to our herd psychology commuter traffic also is rarely moving at a constant velocity, so the aerodynamic savings of low speed are more than gobbled up by whatever means of friction are employed to maintain the coherence of the sluggishly flowing river of automobiles, our correct yet nonsensical arrival times at work, etc.

    *(That experiment leads to one of the few good reasons I can think of to go to the Moon other than astronomy: Velodromes! Imagine the fun of pedaling around a track at arbitrarily high speeds! Of course the curves would have to be of very large radius lest riders and frames be crushed by centrifugal force but then there’s no shortage of real estate.)

  3. 203
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company 26 August 2009 at 5:50 PM

    Leaving aside that wind generation plants are vacuuming up a lot of private money in spite of not enjoying some of the same financial artifices as fossil fuel plants and thus do not seem to comport with your suspicions about government financing, you seem to be saying that because the electric grid can soak up a very large amount of wind generation capacity, wind generation is pointless. That confuses me; surely I’m missing your point.

    “But more certain than anything, they simply will not be able to fill the load with added wind power; that is already fully utilized at whatever level the wind allows.”

    How does it follow that because wind generation capacity is fully utilized it is chicanery? Try telling a utility operator that steady operation at 100% capacity is a bad thing and they’ll laugh at you.

    “Since fuel cost is zero, there will be no holding back when the wind blows. ”

    I don’t get that conclusion either. The fuel cost is zero, the capacity is completely utilized, yet those are signs of failure? How?

  4. 204

    203 Doug Bostrom

    The wind system does might or might not fail, but that was not what I was referring to.

    The chicanery is the deceit that makes people think they are running their electric cars on wind energy, when there is no connection between the two operations. But they are told they are “buying wind power.” Buy it, fine, but then make a separate decision about the EV.

    My complaint about subsidies is that they mislead us into thinking something will work on a large scale when it seems to work in cases where subsidies have to be used to get it going. If wind turns out to be cost effective, great. However, I observe quite a lot of idle windmills fairly often and I have looked at the Ontario power schedule which shows how pathetic things can turn out to be on many days compared to the peak. But to be clear, wind is not in the same category as space based solar which is fundamentally nonsense.

  5. 205
    Patrick 027 says:

    Jim Bullis –

    Okay, I misunderstood your intentions regarding speed.

    However, regarding getting people to be willing to buy (PH)EVs, this is a general issue – besides money up front vs money ‘down the road’ (pun intended), getting people to use cars that are different in any way from what they are used to, getting people to build houses that are a little different from what they have been building … there is a force of habit we have to confront. This is where public policies (building codes, CAFE standards and so-on) can be of great service (Over and above the emissions tax, which fundamentally is needed to correct for the externality, habitual or not; seeing as we don’t yet have this, and even when we do, there is the issue of making up for lost time – I don’t have a problem with some government subsidies for wind and solar, efficiency, etc, so long as they aren’t managed too stupidly).

    If cars are made more efficient, that is good whether they are ICE or EV or …

    “Buy it, fine, but then make a separate decision about the EV.”

    Well, of course, but if switching to the EV saves money, this will affect ability to afford wind or solar power, so there can be a connection – the EV can be used as a way to fund a net reduction in CO2 emissions, and the technlogical pathway may, depending on how biofuels and hydrogen storage go, be advantageous even when coal is replaced by geothermal and wind and solar energy storage.

    Solar is getting near grid parity (some technology might be there now), but with the initial upfront investment required, it will be easier if the fossil fuels displaced include some fraction of petroleum usage. It wouldn’t be necessary to only replace petroleum, but including some petroleum in the reduction of fossil fuel use will help finance the transition (In later stages, the longevity of solar devices that have largely payed off their investment costs will be helpful).

    I agree with Doug; it is a good thing that the wind supply will be used nearly as much as it can. This is actually a very good thing – in the interest of paying off these investments, wind and solar supplies should be utilized when possible – otherwise, a potential for disaster exists wherein solar and wind plants on sunny and windy days are simply left idle so that those in charge can keep the controllable sources running closer to their capacities – if they had sufficient expenses to pay, that could be a problem. If this were to become a significant problem, there could be some regulative measure to fix it, requiring a prioritization of making use of solar and wind to fill as much demand as they can, and then other things including stored wind and solar, and with coal generally coming last. (PS taxing the CO2 emissions would also help – most emissions from fossil fuel use come from the burning in the power plant, although there is some embodied energy and emissions in the building and maintenance, as there is in all power plants (but depending on the available mix of energy)).

    But solar and wind plants definitely won’t supply energy if they do not exist, if no one made that effort, and that effort won’t be made if people are not willing to provide for it.

    Are those wind turbines idle because the wind is not strong enough (the design might require some minimum nonzero speed to do anything useful), or if it is too strong (for the mechanical and/or electrical design)? Are they down for necessary maintenance/repair? These things happen. Improvements in technology/design and experience can/may help reduce all these losses. They are distinct from simply not using the available clean power supply in favor of using fossil fuels.

  6. 206
    Patrick 027 says:

    I forgot my first ‘3’ when I got to the second ‘3’, which I now see should be ‘4’.

  7. 207
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company 26 August 2009 at 9:01 PM

    “The chicanery is the deceit that makes people think they are running their electric cars on wind energy, when there is no connection between the two operations. But they are told they are “buying wind power.” Buy it, fine, but then make a separate decision about the EV.”

    I think you can rest easy for the moment because the number of people here in the U.S. who could possibly be laboring under such a delusion today is as small as the number of electric vehicles on the road. I also think even the average U.S. consumer is not going to imagine their as-yet unobtainable electric car will be powered by electrons magically tagged at the source as dedicated to vehicular motive power.

    As patrick027 implies, electrons neither know nor care from whence they came or to where they’re headed. For our household we pay a extra amount to our electric utility to be devoted somehow to “alternative” power generation capacity. As it happens in our case the money predominantly goes to wind generators. I really don’t care where the resulting electricity ends up being liberated as heat, I instead derive some small measure of satisfaction from knowing that wherever that electricity ended up it was not obtained by stubbornly imitating a parasite-ridden preliterate troglodyte huddled over a jealously guarded smoldering fire, thousands of years dead.

    Regarding availability of wind generation plants, it’s useful to remember that these are indeed sometimes idle but on the other hand so are coal and for that matter nuclear power generator units, at about 20% and 15% respectively for various maintenance. The difference from the casual bystander’s perspective is that wind generators are really obviously idle, whereas a coal or nuclear station undergoing maintenance looks nearly as busy as ever.

  8. 208
    Mark says:

    “Jump on a bicycle and try pedaling at 10mph. Next try 25mph. It requires a highly conditioned rider to travel for any distance on a bicycle moving at 25MPH. What changed?”

    On a mountain bike on the flat, 25mph is easily attainable.

    On a real road with ups and downs and traffic and waits, 11 miles takes 35 minutes (17mph).

    This is a mountain bike.

    But isn’t this also demonstrating that it isn’t the electric car that suffers? After all, my legs do not run electric motors to do the work.

    So why do electric cars get the “they’re OK up to 27mph” schtick? Petrol and Diesel cars have the exact same problem.

    Worse, because their torque is dependent on RPMs and the internal drag is likewise dependent on RPMs, whereas the electric motor can have MORE torque at 0 RPM where ICEs have 0 torque.

  9. 209
    Mark says:

    So, Jim, why is the electric car a problem at 27mph? It looks like *travel* at 27mph is the problem. So why single out the electric car?

    There’s a production ready electric car able to do 160mph.

    Why must your car be able to do 82 mph and why do you think that electric cars can’t do that?

  10. 210
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Mark 27 August 2009 at 3:50 AM

    Mark, I’m not attacking bicycles, rather riffing on Jim Bullis’ remarks about air resistance. I suspect you’re using your bicycle often enough to be trained (conditioned) to do the necessary work to shove yourself through the air at 25MPH. Put the average person on a bike and they might well able to briefly attain 25MPH but they will not stay there for long. For yourself you might try 100 miles at 25MPH. As a point of reference, Tour de France riders average just under 30MPH on flat stages, time trials not being extraordinarily faster in spite of employing every aerodynamic tweak.

    Air resistance exists, for cyclists and automobile drivers. There’s a tremendous energy penalty to pay for increasing speed. This is not controversial.

    The “need for speed” is vastly overrated. For every Wyoming cattleman whizzing along I-90 on the way to an auction there are 100 accountants crawling along an on-ramp waiting to reach the “freeway” and sit on the brake pedal until arriving home. So is the need for range, because most people live not so many miles from where they work, just a lot of time away instead.

    That being said, Bullis’ basic point about electric vehicles (I think) is that batteries are presently unsuitable for propelling vehicle at high rates of speed for long distances while keeping the mass of the batteries down at some reasonable level. Practical experience with electric vehicles bears this out, of course, because the ineluctable physics of the situation in combination with our wispy batteries means electric vehicles travel significantly shorter distances when pushed to travel fast. So do gasoline vehicles, but they enjoy our acceptance– developed over a period of 100 years’ exposure to various horrific mayhem– of casually distributing and handling highly flammable and potentially explosive gasoline, thus getting around the penalties of speed by being easy to reload with ergs.

  11. 211
    Patrick 027 says:

    One idea is to refuel electric cars by replacing emptied/low batteries with already recharged batteries.

    I have read of a bacteria-powered fuel cell in which bacteria digesting sugar produced a voltage between electrodes.

  12. 212

    Doug, Mark, Patrick and others,

    From time to time I take note that I am not king of the world. On one such occasion I realized that a 30 mph world was not going to happen, even if it would mean many of the world’s biggest problems were solved.

    Then I thought some more about what is important in life and remembered all the waste of my time from sitting in traffic. As I thought about this I realized that this lost time took away from home and work time and thus had a permanent damaging effect on overall quality of life.

    Thinking about rearranging the way we live and work, and again noting my lack of authority, I concluded that it would be better to go along with the way people choose to live, but just try to make it work better.

    So given that we choose to live in work in the most distributed possible way, what can be done to improve things.

    Not being especially successful at making a new kind of engine, I looked at ways to make travel more efficient, with the advantages of the motorcycle or bicycles in mind. Not being sufficiently sturdy of mind to handle the site of motorcyclists and bicyclists lying mangled on the road, I also set myself the requirement that riders be protected, at least as well as if they were in cars.

    So I found that it was possible to make a narrow vehicle that would use less room on the road and in parking lots, but still had the stability of cars. That seemed interesting, especially when noting that it would push half as much air as a conventional car. Noting also that most cars on the road were burdened to carry an empty right front seat, this seemed like progress. I assumed that aerodynamic shaping would be about the same as with cars.

    Having some glancing familiarity with aerodynamics and still having my college text on the subject, I was reminded of the airship which has a drag coefficient of .05. When fitting this onto the stabilizing system, the advantage of tandem seating became clear. Not only was it necessary to elevate the airship above the road, a cylindrical shape was important. If it was required to fit in an empty front seat, the whole thing gets very ungainly, and also fails at my original narrow vehicle requirement. Of course the whole thing would have a drag coefficient somewhat higher than .05, even though the free flow aerodynamic requirement was approximately achieved.

    Surprise, what came out was an electric car, because putting in a mechanical drive train made it hard to keep the wheel part small. I then received punishing criticism for suggesting a car that would aggravate global warming, since it was clear that the marginal response to this new machine would be to increase power production from coal. All I could offer in defense was that only about a tenth as much energy was required compared to cars as we now know them, maybe about a fourth that of the Prius.

    Of course there would be the long trip problem, even though the batteries for the narrow car would carry it for most daily use. So a very small engine-generator seemed inevitable, and it looked like about 12 hp would do for the engine, and still get 80 mph on a steady basis.

    Still chafing under criticism for using electricity, I found it might be a compensation if this small engine-generator could get a second use as an electric generator to charge the batteries at night. Of course there is the discharged heat in exhaust and coolant so why not run that into the house that is probably nearby where the vehicle is parked at night. The 12 hp means that the amount of heat would be somewhat comparable to the heat produced by burning natural gas in many households. If done right, this can mean a system efficiency of 100%, and the engine-generator is already sitting in the car, so the power equipment is approximately free. Once the car batteries, why not use whatever time remains to run the household electricity needs, and if that need is filled, how about selling it back to the grid — like with solar only at night. We already have the infrastructure to get natural gas as an alternate fuel to the house and it would be simple to get it to the car.

    You guys can do the math, but it looks like people could still get around fast with comfort and safety. Maybe 90% of the energy needed for personal transportation would be cut, and a fair amount of electric power could be produced at a system efficiency far better than that of most central power plants.

    Thus, quite a lot could be accomplished for very little cost. Try to beat that with plug-ins, solar, wind, or nuclear. It probably won’t fix everyting, but it seems like a good start.

    Maybe you can see why “powersat” should not get in the way?

  13. 213
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Patrick 027 27 August 2009 at 12:29 PM

    “One idea is to refuel electric cars by replacing emptied/low batteries with already recharged batteries.”

    A really intriguing idea, one I’ve thought about for years and I’m sure we’re not alone.

    Gasoline delivery was standardized across brands. Though it’s not as easy a challenge, it does not seem so improbable that EV designs could include a receptacle for a quick-change battery.

    This is an extremely robot-friendly application. I can picture an arrangement similar to an automated car wash, where a vehicle is driven in, the battery extracted by a robot and similarly replaced.

    The price for a “refill” would include energy, a battery degradation fee accounting for ultimate replacement costs, plus profit of course.

    Batteries could optionally be equipped w/memory to allow adjustment of swap fees to account for abuse of the battery or depth of discharge with a discount offered to users sensitive to the peculiar requirements of batteries.

    Just as a gas station maintains an inventory of gasoline to accommodate daily sales, a swap facility would maintain a shelf stock of batteries moving through the charging process.

    Naturally, batteries could be loaded with marketing claims, jazzy stickers, etc. for those of us who find our cars go faster if we support ad campaigns.

    Whoops. As usual, on a planet loaded with over 6 billion persons somebody’s already way ahead in this game. Check it out:

    The Register makes remarks about challenges of connectors, etc. but circling back to gasoline, how likely is -that- system? Volatile, highly flammable liquids dispensed in open air by random strangers…

  14. 214
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company 27 August 2009 at 1:26 PM

    I’ve looked at your site and I find your concept very interesting, very sensible in many ways. The trouble is, we’re such conformists and so inclined to abandon rationality in our haste to follow the crowd that I think your design faces not so much technical hurdles as psychological barriers. I’m pretty open-minded and I find the idea of being an early adopter of such a design pretty far fetched, if only for the reason that I wouldn’t want to make myself so conspicuous.

    Of course, on the other hand GM employed a group of designers to probe the limits of just how foolishly they could make consumers behave and were able to market the Suburban-in-military-drag Hummer with quite a degree of success. Maybe I’m wrong; at least people driving your concept would be doing so for reasons that can be explained and justified with numbers.

    For what it’s worth though I don’t find I can agree with you about some things I also don’t think you’re using RC to shill your concept, at least not in a monetization sense.

  15. 215

    213 Doug Bostrom,

    Here is a link to a story about a project of “Project Better Place” that makes sense:

    Of course it will draw from coal fired power capacity, but the advantages here make sense. All their other projects that I have followed seem more devoted to the con game that people will be driving on “green power.”

    Of course it will be a reasonable way to do things if the cars are also made highly efficient. That seems not to be their plan.

  16. 216
    Stephanie says:

    “The problem with allowing economists to decide the proper response of society to global warming is that they base their analysis only on their own quantifications of the costs and benefits of different strategies.”

    As an economist, I have to respond to this. Everyone bases their decisions on their own quantifications of the costs and benefits of a given policy. Economists make these quantifications explicit (or they should, if they don’t they’re doing poor analysis)–you can agree or disagree with, or suggest improvements upon, the methods used to quantify costs and benefits, but at least you know how they are being calculated.

    When you ask someone if a given climate policy is “worth it” they’re going to make some internal calculation and give you an answer. It’s a lot harder to argue with their subjective assessment because you don’t know how they calculated it. A good economist will tell you what they’re including–and if they do a bad job and miss a lot of important costs (as is the case here) then you can point that out.

    There are economists out there fighting the good fight (and doing their best to understand climate science!), so, please, let’s not give all economists a bad name because of the shoddy analysis of a few. (And, incidentally, many economists recognize that this is not an issue where cost-benefit analysis can give us an “optimal” policy, given the huge uncertainties, but we can still try to inform people about what we *do* know about the costs and benefits of a given policy.)

  17. 217
    Steve Fish says:

    Stephanie #216. Could you please provide some guidance for finding the work of “economists out there fighting the good fight.”

    Thanks, Steve

  18. 218
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Stephanie, For what it is worth (e.g. not much), I agree that economists often get a bad rap in this debate. However, that is in part because there are a lot of folkd out there (some economists and some not) who are doing some very bad economics. At its best, economics fulfills the same valuable role that science does–namely, it applies quantitative analysis to help us avoid telling ourselves reassuring lies.

    The thing is that while economics tells us that developing a new energy infrastructure will be expensive, the expense is irrelevant, because continued use of fossil fuel is not sustainable. That is true independent of any climate concerns, sinced we’re running out of fossil fuels. It is certainly an interesting economic question to consider HOW we develop said structure, but that we need to develop it comes down to physics. I think that perhaps what is needed is for more real economists to bitchslap some of the charlatans like Lomborg who are prostituting your profession.

  19. 219

    218 Ray Ladbury

    Economists should be telling us that the cost of solutions is very important in a real world where financial resources are limited. It is then up to engineers (including scientists acting as engineers) to figure out the appropriate choices. Failing to make the right choices could be a very bad thing for the climate because there will not be unlimited opportunities to get it right. Not only is money limited; so is public forbearance for actions that are hard to understand.

    You mentioned a new energy infrastructure. That is a good example of how things that could go right could also go very wrong. Improved transmission lines that perpetuate our system of central power plants that are located to enable easy waste of heat. Simply squeezing down the loss on transmission lines, say from 7% to 5%, is not much progress when you realize that the power plants mostly run at 30% to 40% efficiency. Selling us on the idea that computers will make the grid all that much smarter is a false pretense. Sure they could couple in wind systems from far away that cost a lot themselves and still require standby power plants which also cost a lot just to keep in reserve. Economists should knock us on the head for this nonsense. We should understand the critical importance of capital expense in whatever solution we devise.

    A renewed infrastructure built around distributed cogeneration systems, where the power plants reach nearly 100% system efficiency due to effective use of discharged heat, could cost very little and do a lot of good. Economists should tell us that this would be the right choice, if we can’t figure that out on our own.

  20. 220
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Steve Fish 28 August 2009 at 11:14 AM

    While you’re waiting for a better reply from Stephanie try searching “ecological economic modeling valuation of ecosystems” on Google scholar.

  21. 221
    Steve Fish says:

    Thanks Doug (#220) I do use Google Scholar, but economics is so far outside my area of expertise that I need some help. What I am most interested in are analyses of the costs of not dealing with warming that are realistic about all “externalities.” This is not my mission from God (Blues Brothers), I just want to be up to speed for when talking to people in my small community.


  22. 222
    Hank Roberts says:

    > power plants reach nearly 100% system efficiency
    > due to effective use of discharged heat,

    Where is one of these in use now?
    Is it for sale commercially?
    How’s it documented?
    What does ‘system efficiency’ mean exactly?

  23. 223
    Steve Fish says:

    Hi Doug (#220), I do use Google Scholar, but economics is so far from my area of expertise that I need help. I am interested in the costs of not dealing with CO2 and warming that are realistic about “externalities.” This is not my mission from God (Blues Brothers), I just want to get up to speed for conversations with others in my small community.


  24. 224
    David B. Benson says:

    Hank Roberts (222) — Use of the excess heat for house heating is quite common in Germany, for example. It does mean one has to live right next door to the generation facility.

  25. 225
    RichardC says:

    222 Hank, yes, cogeneration systems are widely available, especially in Europe. They are efficient fossil fuel electric generators who’s waste heat is used productively. Why burn gas in your furnace when you could be burning it in an electric generator and still use the waste heat to warm your house? When using heat requirement as the driver, 90% efficiency becomes a yawner. To get these efficiencies, the heat must be used close to the generator, so cogeneration is a core component in diversified distributed generation designs.

  26. 226
    Patrick 027 says:

    Stephanie – good points!

    Ray Ladbury (“the expense is irrelevant, because continued use of fossil fuel is not sustainable.”) – it does matter how much alternative energy and efficiency cost; fossil fuels are limited but we have a choice in how fast we switch and what we switch to and how we do it. (“It is certainly an interesting economic question to consider HOW we develop said structure,” – yes).

    Jim Bullis – what if the new centralized plants do not waste heat? Solar PV rooftops do have the advantage of potentially providing some heat (imagine a 5 to 30 % efficient PV device that conducts maybe ~ 40 % of waste heat to a water heating panel in the back, which preheats the water (or other fluid) to a moderate temperature while boosting PV efficiency by keeping them cool). However, there is limited roof space and limited usefulness for this heat onsite in many cases, and it may help in monetary terms to have some centralized PV and/or CSP and/or CPV … plants in the subtropical deserts. (And winter space heating could be helped with insulated skylights, which might also be luminescent concentrators and/or water heaters (absorbing solar UV and solar IR), and/or a shade to reflect solar IR and UV in summer that can be retracted in cold weather… and thermal storage, etc.). Solar power plants could produce fuel to send to buildings to run fuel cells to produce electricity and waste heat could be used.

  27. 227

    The Sonoma County Community Climate Action Plan, referenced in the website, is a deeply researched study and set of conclusions on the most cost effective measures for CO2 reduction at a local scale across all sectors. The data we have produced in this plan conclusively shows that a publicly financed deployment of demand-side peak reduction, massively distributed generation, Smart Grid technology and electric vehicles can be financed using long term municipal bonds. The transformed energy supply portfolio can achieve a significant (25% below 1990 levels by 2015) reduction, cost effectively, and a head start toward carbon neutrality by mid-century. These findings are in line with the findings of the State of California that CO2 mitigation can be revenue positive for the state. I know this is off topic, but I note the well-worn skeptic objection that the energy supply transformation is “hugely expensive”… it simply isn’t when financed properly.

  28. 228

    There are three keys to minimizing the cost of new renewable electricity generation: 1) make it local to eliminate the need for new transmission; 2) make it publicly owned and financed to reduce the levelized cost of energy; 3) focus on peak demand reduction and efficiency to reduce the need for new generation, and tailor the generation to load profile characteristics. To the extent that volumetric transactions can be reduced the resulting need for a wide scale grid approach is reduced.

    Smart grid technologies for integrating electric vehicles are also critical.

  29. 229

    222 Hank Roberts,

    There is a little trick in the definition of efficiency for cogeneration. To claim 100% efficiency, the heat that is used as effectively as heat from natural gas in a house would have been has to count as full use of heat. I define that as system efficiency.

    Eventually, even in a very well designed system, some heat goes up a chimney, so there is minor flaw in my definition. It gets impossibly complicated if you start to figure the heat loss due to poor insulation. Only if a house was a thermos bottle (perfect at that) could we talk about true 100% efficiency.

    But from an engineering point of view 90% gets an A grade.

    I think Dean Kamen used the term “darn near 100%.”

  30. 230

    226 Patrick 027

    I would not argue that solar, wind, and such would not be great to have in the system if we can afford to buy such in meaningful quantities. I do not see that in the next 10 to 20 years. Reasonable folks disagree on that, but I try to get the evaluations done realistically.

    As I see the future, natural gas, even if we make the best possible use of it as I propose, will run out. An orderly transition to better things is essential in a long term plan. What these are is another discussion.

  31. 231
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    The spanner in the works, the sand in the salad, the goose in the behind is Peak Oil. Until the housing bubble burst and the collapse of the financial industry dragged us down, the cost of oil was flirting with something like 6-7% of GDP. If and when the economy picks up, you can bet your pasties that the price of oil will pick right up with it, choking future growth. We absolutely need to have alternate sources of energy since very soon we’re going to need to move petroleum away from transportation to fertilizer production. The atmosphere could be at pre-Industrial Revolution levels of CO2 and we’d still need to make the switch.

  32. 232
    Patrick 027 says:

    “Only if a house was a thermos bottle (perfect at that) could we talk about true 100% efficiency.”

    It’s actually hard to define an efficiency with insulation + ventilation factored in – those are heating requirements and there isn’t an absolute lower limit for defining an efficiency as a simple percentage without qualification.

    (PS some large buildings actually need cooling year round, which is a good thing for solar power.)

  33. 233
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company 28 August 2009 at 8:12 PM

    “I would not argue that solar, wind, and such would not be great to have in the system if we can afford to buy such in meaningful quantities. I do not see that in the next 10 to 20 years.”

    Spain just went through a bout of PV installation ending up w/total output installed over the past little more than year of about 2.7GW, neatly equal to the combined output of the two largest nuclear generation plants in the U.S. The Spaniards added the equivalent of two very large thermonuclear plants available there for use during peak hours, this construction being accomplished during approximately one years’ time. That schedule puts nuclear systems to shame and is better even than coal generation plants. The work was accomplished in a global PV market that was undersupplied with available product.

    Spain stands as an example of what can happen with “alternative” energy systems when money is liberated from hidebound thinking and diverted to more modern ways of solving problems. The delay you anticipate is mostly psychological.

  34. 234
    RichardC says:

    Steering back to geoengineering, I proposed an experiment where low clouds would be used to maintain polar albedo. Cost and risk are low, and the benefits and contribution to knowledge would be significant. I wonder what the models would predict for various schemes with regard to rainfall patterns, etc, for the planet. I’m thinking that starting small and going slow while building expertise would be wise. Imagine the fights over rainfall and equity with life and death literally in the balance. I wonder if the polar albedo experiment could be done without risking significant changes to weather patterns? The alternative polar albedo experiment, that of heating polar waters with summer sunlight, seems riskier to me.

  35. 235
    Rod B says:

    Hank, Jim: IIRC, Manhattan does a pile of “like co-generation” in providing heat (and maybe steam) to many housing projects from Power generation. I don’t know, but doubt, if they get anything near 100% overall efficiency. (Efficiency in this kind of “reuse” is difficult to grasp.)

  36. 236
    CM says:

    On topic: Apparently a Royal Society working group is due to issue a statement on geoengineering on 1 September.

    ETC group, a watchdog on scary technologies, claims the report will “legitimize dangerous planet-tinkering schemes”, and counters by calling the bluff on geoengineering as “the emperor’s new clothes”. A choice soundbite from their memo:

    “Geoengineering is the Big Mac of climate change response: fast, unhealthy and deceptively cheap in the short-term.”

  37. 237

    Note, from Jim Bullis’s comments–

    He doesn’t like wind.
    He doesn’t like solar.
    He doesn’t like smart grids.
    He doesn’t like natural gas.

    The ONLY thing he likes is–the cogeneration plants his company has the technology for. As if they wouldn’t still be burning fossil fuels.

    Consider the source.

  38. 238
    Rod B says:

    Doug B (233), why is Spain bailing out of PV generation, one of the large reasons why the bottom fell out of the PV manufacturing business in 2009. I heard Spain was cooling way down (bailing out may be too strong, I don’t know) — but never heard what their concern was.

  39. 239

    203 Doug Bostrom

    Good point about capacity. The way the term capacity is used on the Ontario power schedule it means the capacity at maximum wind. Actual wind being often much less, the percent of capacity is thus meaningful.

    Logical people might think that capacity is the most you can produce at a given time. That is not the way they use the term.

  40. 240

    237 Barton Paul Levenson,

    Clearly that Jim Bullis is a rotten guy. Oops that’s me.

    But to correct the record since either I don’t write well or some folks have some reading difficultly:

    He loves affordable wind, affordable solar, actually smart, smart grids and he mostly loves affordable natural gas.

    But more than anything else he loves really cheap ways to get a lot done. What a jerk! And ‘arrogant’!!! (As Mark has proclaimed) Well maybe a little, but it takes some of that to imagine changing things in a big way.

    I realize it is hard to think about stuff coming from obnoxious folk, but try one more time (if you think there is a CO2 problem that it is up to mankind to solve):

    The cogeneration I describe enables significant CO2 reduction by displacing the use of coal as fuel. It does it because you get more electricity out of the natural gas that is allocated to power generation in this distributed cogeneration system, so there is real economic motivation (or at least not strong disincentive due to cost advantage of coal.) to choose this rather than coal.

    Now comes the big part: Each unit of natural gas invested in making a unit of electricity in the specified combination of a household and a car will cause an associated unit of CO2 from burning natural gas. However that unit of electricity will cause the coal fired plant to not produce that unit amount of electricity. Because of the 100% vs 33% efficiency difference, about a third as much heat will be required in the cogen system versus the coal fired system. Pretty good huh?

    And then wait, you have to emit twice as much CO2 to get heat from coal as you do from natural gas. So that unit of CO2 from natural gas in cogen will save six units of CO2 from coal in a coal fired plant. Reducing CO2 by a factor of six seems like a good thing.

    But then “consider the source” and reject the whole thing. Who cares about CO2 if it means listening to a rotten source.

  41. 241

    235 Rod B

    Yes, efficiency is a confusing subject. I try to distinguish between thermal efficiency and system efficiency. Due to the Second Law, thermal efficiency will never be anything close to 100%. However, by using the term to describe the use made of heat of whatever sort, things get a lot better. And in the NY steam pipes, a lot is lost, so the heat that is actually used falls off. But the whole thing gets down to definition of the system. I count usage as complete if it does about as well as natural gas heat usage in a household. Good heating systems still lose 10% or so up the chimney and so would my system. So if defined more comprehensively, my approach should get a little more than 90%. that does not change the gain from cogen by much.

  42. 242

    237 Barton Paul Levenson,

    I realize that natural gas was put on this earth for us to burn up, but try hard not to do that. My system is hard to make work without it.

    By the way, my cogeneration system is a zero (approximately) cost system since most of the machiner would be running around in cars and the household can be expected to have heat using equipment alreadly in place.

  43. 243

    225 RichardC

    Yes, it is fundamental that the heat has to be used near the generator. It is particularly handy if the car has the generating equipment and you can park it near the house at night?

    The distributed design is automatic and almost free as I said previously.

    I should add that it is possible but a bit difficult to use all the heat from most cars, which might explain why it is not widely done. If you do not use all the heat then the whole deal is blown.

    For Barton Paul Levenson and Mark:

    I am also pushing cars with very low horsepower engines. These could cut the CO2 from personal transportation in the USA by about 90%. How rotten can a guy get?

  44. 244

    Here’s what I found on the question of Spanish PV installation:

    “The 2.5GW of PV installations in Spain last year were close to half of the world’s total of 5.5GW, according to the European PV Industry Association (EPIA), but that surge was somewhat of a fluke.

    While Spain did want to spur PV last year, the feed-in tariffs offered were miscalculated by officials, so that new installations could be paid off in as little as a year. This led to explosive growth which won’t be repeated in 2009 because Spain capped installations it will support at 0.5GW.”


    So it’s not so much that they’re backing off, as that they opened the feed-in tariff taps a bit wider than they meant to last year. (I imagine it was a bit of a budget-buster, especially in the context of the recession.) It does rather demonstrate that the limiting factor in building up PV capacity is not technological but financial.

  45. 245

    203 Doug Bostrom,

    I have no suspicions.

    It is well known that private investors love to jump on projects than offer big tax deductions.

    And if there is a great need to rebuild transmission line systems to carry wind power from source to point of use, isn’t that a financial artifice.

    But that is a project requiring current and future funding.

    Whatever blame that can be attached to railroads, coal mine leases, existing power lines as financial artifices, I think that is in the past and not really subject to change. If we are to straighten out the financial artifices of the past we need to go back and rewrite a lot of laws and cough up a lot of restitution. So maybe all we should worry about is getting the future right.

  46. 246
    Patrick 027 says:

    Jim Bullis – Certainly, it would be great that so long as natural gas or any fuel (biofuels preferably) are burned for heating, it would be great to generate electricity from that process.

    I just don’t see that as being very practical for cars as house-heating devices, but maybe I’m just not far enough outside the box (which is not usually my problem). (However, utilizing (PH)EV batteries as energy storage when the vehicle is not in use could be handy (?)).

    What I envision is that furnaces might be retrofitted or replaced with equipment so that residential and commercial buildings (as many industrial structures already do, I think) have cogeneration capability available for winter heating and electrical needs (when unstored solar power availability is at a minimum).

    This might involve thermoelectric or thermophotovoltaic conversion (which would produce DC power, but that could easily be fed into the inverter that would at other times of the day/year be more fully occupied by the rooftop solar PV power output) so as to avoid all the mechanical complexity of turbines/pistons – AC generators.

    On the other hand, relatively cheap and clean heating might be obtained through passive solar design and thermal storage, and electric heat pumps (when the COP is high enough) – this may include skylights, which might let visible light into the interior while perhaps reflecting terrestrial IR and transfering solar UV and solar IR to water (for heat) or to solar PV via luminescent concentration (which would also produce some waste heat).

    Which might mean that it would be even better, depending on technology and economics, to forgo simple combustion where possible and instead run the fuel through fuel cells. Such fuel might include solar-produced hydrogen, or some other fuel which is processed (perhaps an exothermic process and liberating some useful heat) into hydrogen and CO (if CO can also be used in fuel cells) and byproducts that cannot be used in fuel cells could still be combusted for energy. If it doesn’t work to just mix solar hydrogen into the natural gas system, solar energy might be used to produce methane from water and carbon dioxide, which could then be fed (along with biofuel-derived methane) into the existing natural gas distribution system, and to whatever extent is justified, end use could include some processing for fuel cells… maybe. But the fewer conversion steps the better when all else is equal, so perhaps only biofuel-derived methane should be mixed into the natural gas supply, while solar and biofuel-derived fuels that can be used in fuel cells directly should be handled seperately (?). At least as much fuel as is produced by solar (or wind) electricity should be used in fuel cells, because otherwise it is a waste of electric power to produce fuel that would be used in a less efficient process to produce electricity, even if the waste heat is utililized, because it is generally easier to produce heat than electricity – with the exception of higher temperature heat such as in industrial processes and maybe ovens and toasters…

    (I wonder if solar hydrogen could be stored in the same reservoirs now used for natural gas storage – would this work better than CAES?)

  47. 247
    Patrick 027 says:

    PS maybe this is the problem I saw (and didn’t realize I saw it :) ): If the car engine is a cogeneration device, wouldn’t it be easier to use a ‘stationary engine’, or perhaps a fuel cell, solar roof, etc, and put some of the electricity into the car? Yes, there will be losses for storage and later retrieval of electricity, but then again, there would be losses for all the heat produced by the car when the car is in use outside the home… etc.

  48. 248
    Patrick 027 says:

    Jim Bullis –

    Maybe this is the problem I saw (and didn’t realize I saw it :) ).

    If you were going to use a car engine (or fuel cell, etc.) as a cogeneration plant to supply some power and heat to a building, wouldn’t it be easier to use a stationary cogeneration plant, or hybrid solar roof, fuel cell, electricity from a grid with sufficient clean energy mixed in, etc, to power the car and heat and power the building? A car can carry the electricity from the building in it’s battery with some loss; I would think there would be greater heat loss for a mobile cogeneration facility that can only deliver heat to the building when parked.

  49. 249
    Patrick 027 says:

    Okay, you could make the argument that it is easier to store electricity in stationary batteries or flywheels or … etc, and that at any one time some number of cars might be parked and able to feed electricity into the grid and heat into some of the buildings, and it isn’t necessary for the heat source to always be at every building because heat can be stored.

    On the other hand, with PHEVs, electricity can be used for short trips while fuel usage (perhaps sugar-run bacterial fuel cells) will help in longer road trips.

    Meanwhile, the best energy system overall I suspect would still rely more on passive solar design and thermal storage, solar and wind electricity along with geothermal, hydroelectric, etc, with biofuels…

  50. 250
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Rod B 29 August 2009 at 1:22 PM

    As somebody else pointed out, they’re not bailing. This year, “only” 500MW. Next year, “only” another 800MW. So an additional 1,300MW over two years, once again beating the pants by a long mile off the time it would take to construct an equivalent medium-sized nuclear plant and slightly besting all-out best case delivery for a coal plant.

    Existence is truly a wonderful thing!