Donald Trump’s War on Coal

Trump will oversee a much steeper fall in coal than Obama did.

“They want to be miners, but their jobs have been taken away. And we’re going to bring them back, folks.” – candidate Donald Trump on August 10, 2016, with similar statements on many other occasions.

In contrast, the Trump Administration action on this promise has been negligible. One regulation on water pollution from mines was reversed (idem). A proposal to subsidise coal on grounds of “grid resilience” was shot down in flames by a unanimous FERC, the majority of whose members are Trump appointees.

Derelict coal mine in Hashima, Japan

There’s been talk of a new plan using emergency powers and an entirely different and equally specious claim of national security, but the Deep State (i.e. Trump officials who still have two working neurones) have sidelined it.
Trump has appointed a key author of Plan A, Bernard McNamee, to FERC – but there is already a serious legal challenge to force him to recuse himself from taking part in decisions on his own proposals.

Meanwhile, the industry has continued to operate under Obama’s rules. Production actually increased a little in 2017, but this was entirely due to a temporary spike in Chinese imports. It fell slightly in 2018, tracking the slow decline in domestic demand. Jobs are holding up pretty well. At first sight, Trump can plausibly claim at least to have stopped the rot.

He has not. The first bad sign is an acceleration in closures of coal generating plants, an equal record 15 GW in 2018. Chart from IEEFA:

It doesn’t look too bad for the years ahead, does it? But in fact the firmly announced closures are the tip of a Titanic iceberg. There is much, much worse to come.

Continue reading “Donald Trump’s War on Coal”

Ammonia: a New Year’s paean

Synthetic ammonia from catalysed hydrogen: yes ,iy’s important

WTF? Has Wimberley finally taken leave of his diminishing senses? Why laud a commonplace and unpleasantly acrid standard chemical, used to make fertilizer and explosives, and still popular as a cleaning agent with traditionalist housewives in Spain and Brazil? (The nasty smell tells germs you mean business.)

Hear me out, kind readers. Ammonia is about to take its place as a worthy piece of the complex jigsaw puzzle of the energy transition.

This will be down to its additional potential use as a carbon-free fuel. Burn ammonia, in an engine or fuel cell, and you ideally get:

4.NH3 (ammonia) + 3.O2 (oxygen) → 2.N2 (nitrogen) + 6.H2O (water)

In an engine, in practice you also get some nasty nitrous oxides, NOX: controllable by clever engine management, scrubbing the exhaust with more ammonia, or reforming to hydrogen just before burning.

Ammonia is not a greenhouse gas, and nor are its main combustion products. So it’s a candidate for a storable renewable fuel to replace oil-based liquid fuels and natural gas. The rivals are plant-based liquid biofuels (diesel, ethanol, kerosene), biogas from digesters fed with biomass, and catalytic hydrogen.

In this competition it has some attractive technical characteristics. Continue reading “Ammonia: a New Year’s paean”

Climate alarmism?

The warnings of the National Climate Assessment are somewhat overblown. Still you should worry.

The Trump Administration scored an own goal by its Cunning Plan to release the mandated National Climate Assessment on the Friday after US Thanksgiving, counting on comatose satiety to distract public attention. In fact, it was such a quiet news day, without outrageous Trump tweets, that the report’s dire warnings got unusual coverage.

The usual shills, rallied by the Leader himself, promptly decried the report as the usual alarmism.

For once, I have to say that the shills have half, or perhaps a quarter, of a point. The NCA makes the situation worse than it really is (which is bad enough). Here’s my take.

The issue lies in the use of a piece of professional jargon, the RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways). These were defined ten years ago in 2008-2009 by the climate science community to provide benchmarks for comparing different climate models, using a short list of different assumptions about future emissions. RCP 8.5 is the highest emission track, leading to at least 4 degrees C of warming by end century. The best, RCP 2.6, represents early peaking of emissions and the prospect of climate stabilisation.

It matters a great deal which we are on. The NCA says it’s RCP 8.5. Overview (pdf page 10), my emphasis:

The higher scenario (RCP 8.5) represents a future where annual greenhouse gas emissions increase significantly throughout the 21st century before leveling off by 2100, whereas the other RCPs represent more rapid and substantial mitigation by mid-century, with greater reductions thereafter. Current trends in annual greenhouse gas emissions, globally, are consistent with RCP 8.5.

But wait, the full Chapter 2 on climate science, box 2.4, is more nuanced (references omitted):

Which scenario is more likely? The observed acceleration in carbon emissions over the past 15–20 years has been consistent with the higher future scenarios (such as RCP 8.5) considered in this assessment. Since 2014, however, the growth in emission rates of carbon dioxide has begun to slow as economic growth has become less carbon-intensive with the trend in 2016 estimated at near zero. Preliminary data for 2017, however, indicate growth in carbon emissions once again. These latest results highlight how separating systemic change due to decarbonization from short-term variability that is often affected by economic changes remains difficult.

Well, which is it? Continue reading “Climate alarmism?”

The Queen of Hearts

A lament on Brazil’s election of Bolsonaro, with tips on what to do.

Brazil has just elected a charismatic far-right loon, Jair Messias (sic) Bolsonaro, as its next President. Political junkies can study his campaign website and programme (pdf download), but these documents are more than usually irrelevant. His extraordinary rise from the backbenches in Brasilia has not been based on policy – zero-based budgeting, anybody? – but on tricolour smoke and mirrors, spread by WhatsApp.

A press summary of the programme indicates that there is very little of substance in it. Economy: austerity, privatizations. Taxes: cut (though most Brazilians will find any cuts are taken back by the ideological shift to a capitalized pension scheme). Corruption: lock ‘em up (PT politicians that is). Crime: a free hand to the police to shoot suspects; easier access to guns (I am not making this up). Environment: open up the Amazon to agribusiness. Foreign policy: follow Trump. Education: back to basics, national anthem. Rights of indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, lefties: what rights? Inequality, poverty: fear for the worst.

Bolsonaro has had two careers, both in the public sector. The first was in the army, which he entered aged 16 as an officer cadet. He left in 1988 (after 17 years) as a captain – an ignominious exit rank for a career officer. Brazil was a military dictatorship until 1985. For the first part of his career he was regularly being passed over for promotion by the men responsible for running this dictatorship: presumably not on grounds of ideological deviation. His superiors’ assessments of his capabilities did not change under democracy. He entered politics and sat for 30 years as a isolated backbencher, only known for incendiary remarks in favour of torture and dictatorship. He does not appear to have any serious interest in public policy; the core programme could have been assembled over a weekend in any bar frequented by right-wing blowhards.

The character in fiction that Bolsonaro best matches is neither Brecht’s Arturo Ui  nor Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel but Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

Now he is leader of a country of 210 million. How come? Continue reading “The Queen of Hearts”

Another liar

Another liar surfaces, a nominee for FERC

President Trump has nominated a fossil fuel advocate, Bernard McNamee, for a vacancy on FERC. McNamee is a professional energy lawyer, and has worked for a big utility and a Koch-funded think tank. He is currently executive director of the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy.

He wrote an op-ed for The Hill on Earth Day, a ridiculous paean to fossil fuels. It includes this sentence (my italics):

Some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how.

This is a lie. McNamee is not a fool and the carelessness explanation does not wash for the head of the DoE’s policy shop. Continue reading “Another liar”

Hurricane season again

There are more Florences to come.

Hurricane Florence, from the International Space Station

Hurricane Florence, downgraded to a tropical storm, continues to dump massive quantities of rain on South Carolina, with more to come. She looks like a rerun of Harvey, which flooded Houston last year, cost $125bn. Are these “Acts of God or of the Queen’s enemies”, in the picturesque language of old British insurance contracts?


A bit of both. IPCC 4th Assessment Report, 2007, WG1:

A synthesis of the model results to date indicates that, for a future warmer climate, coarse-resolution models show few consistent changes in tropical cyclones, with results dependent on the model, although those models do show a consistent increase in precipitation intensity in future storms. Higher-resolution models that more credibly simulate tropical cyclones project some consistent increase in peak wind intensities, but a more consistent projected increase in mean and peak precipitation intensities in future tropical cyclones.

We’ve known for at least a decade, for the subset of “we” capable of wading through IPCC prose or reading more popular transcriptions of the science, which should include the press, TV weathermen and policymakers. In this case, the science is extremely simple in outline:

Warmer tropical seas → warmer and wetter air above them → conversion of extra heat energy into rotational energy by the cyclone mechanism → bigger and wetter hurricanes.

Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Florence have been hurricanes modulated by the modest global warming of 0.8 degrees C since 1880, the period with a full and accurate instrumental record. To be generous with the earlier uncertainties, let’s say at most 1 degree C above pre-industrial (say 1750). There is quite certainly more warming to come. Jerry Brown’s recent executive order, aiming at zero net emissions in California in 2045, was rightly hailed as brave political leadership (grandstanding to opponents). Sweden was there first, with the same date.  These are the cutting edge of real policy commitments; most countries have done nothing to translate into action their vague Paris Agreement commitment to zero carbon “in the second half of this century” (Article 4(1)).

Suppose by a miracle everybody else joined Jerry Brown tomorrow. We would, it seems, be on track to the more ambitious 1.5 degrees aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement. Meeting the main 2 degree cap only calls for moderate optimism, not a miracle. The range of good outcomes – never mind the bad ones – lies between doubling global warming from the pre-industrial level, and only increasing it by half.

More storms like Harvey, Irma and Florence are certainly on the way.

Continue reading “Hurricane season again”

The free lunch revisited

A blue-ribbon committee estimates the net economic gains from the energy transition at $26 trn – same as I did

Three years ago I wrote a post in my grandest style, with tony literary references and a Veronese set piece, on the negative costs of the energy transition. Remember it? I thought not. To refresh your memory, my back-of-an envelope calculation ran:

  • Net cash cost of energy transition to 2040, based on IPCC: $0
  • Health saving to 2040 from energy transition, using a straight-line reduction from $3.5 trn a year in 2015 to zero in 2060: ≈ $25 trillion
  • Net undiscounted cost to 2040 of the energy transition (cash for energy plus health only, ignoring mitigation cobenefits): minus $25 trillion.

Now a committee of the great and the good called the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has issued another report (website, pdf). What do you know, they have an estimate of the net costs of the transition to 2030 (pdf pages 12, 22):

Transitioning to this low-carbon, sustainable growth path could deliver a direct economic gain of US$26 trillion through to 2030 compared to business-as-usual, according to analysis for this Report.

These people are obviously more credible than me, and far more influential. The Commission is top-heavy with ex-politicians like a former president of Mexico, CEOs of big companies like Unilever, and the like. The only real expert is Lord Stern. But the actual work was done by kmowledgeable people at Brookings, the WRI, Grantham Institute, and Cambridge Econometrica (not to be confused with the FSB’s tame skunk works Cambridge Analytica). So it looks pretty solid.

How did they get their $26 trillion? Continue reading “The free lunch revisited”

Recycling and Packaging

One area of modern life that I think needs to be addressed in greater depth is the way packaging (and its attendant stress on landfill) has increased over the past few decades. When a package consists of paper, mylar, plastic, and other substances glued together, how in hell does a recycler deal with that? Since it’s a worldwide concern, are there other countries that deal with it in better ways than we do? Is there a way of incorporating the cost of (near-impossible) recycling this kind of packaging into the equation?

And more generally, what kind of research is being done to create packaging that is more amenable to recycling? I remember seeing something about using fungi (mushrooms or other mycological substances) for packaging. Of course, this material is not transparent, but if the rest of the package can be recycled it’s a start.

Coal crash in India

New coal plants in India have crashed to under 5 GW a year.

To cheer you up from a news diet of Trump, a chart from IEEFA of new generating plants in India:


Coal fell off a cliff two years ago. The coal additions in 2017-18 (India uses an April-to-April fiscal year inherited from the Raj) were only 4.2 GW. Coal Plant Tracker still reports 39 GW of coal under construction (with 97 GW suspended and a staggering 476 GW cancelled since 2010), but it’s very likely that much of this is walking dead. IEEFA predicts the real pipeline is 10-20 GW, after which no more will (I infer) ever be needed.

You don’t often see turning points advertised in neon like this. India has had since 2003 a modern split electricity market as in the UK and Texas, with a monopoly national grid, monopoly state distribution companies, and competitive generation. So you got a coal bubble, and a coal crash – far more dramatic than in dirigiste China or quasi-socialist USA. It’s pretty certain that the owners of the few plants coming online are not happy bunnies, and their shiny new assets are born lossmakers. India has large surplus capacity (the power cuts come from the rickety grid), so the average coal capacity factor is below 60% and heading down. New solar can beat existing coal on price by 20%, so it’s only going to get worse.

Indian banks have up to $38 bn of bad loans to power companies (Merrill Lynch). Modi’s government is business-friendly to the point of cronyism, so some sort of bailout will be arranged. It is even more voting-farmer-friendly, so the bailout will not be perfect. Gautam Adani will remain a rich man, but not as rich as he is today.

James Hansen and the whale, a tragi-comedy in four chapters

James Hansen puts himself wrongly in Jonah’s booth.

James Hansen is a great man. His testimony to the US Congress thirty years ago was the key moment when political leaders were made inescapably aware of the fact that humans are on a very dangerous path of heating up the Earth’s climate. Hansen’s predictions were absolutely right. He has continued to publish, in the face of incessant attacks by hired shills, who have SFIK never been able to land a serious blow on his research.

At first, it seemed he was being listened to. H.W. Bush signed the UN Framework climate treaty in Rio in 1991, and the US Senate consented to it by a 98-0 vote. The IPCC had already been set up in 1988, and provided a ready-made purveyor of consensus science as a basis for further action. Then it all slowly fell apart. The Kyoto protocol of 1997 provided the Rio framework with its first, limited emissions targets, and a complicated cap-and-trade emissions trading system designed by the best policy wonks. But it left out developing countries, notably China and India, who proceeded to build hundreds of gigawatts of coal-burning power stations, while the US never ratified. The fossil fuel lobbies organised faster and more effectively than their environmentalist adversaries, and succeeded in manufacturing a level of doubt and fear unsupported by the evidence and the overwhelming consensus of qualified scientists. Successive climate summits failed to advance beyond Kyoto. The free-rider problem was an insoluble obstacle.

Things changed only in 2015. The way the optimists such as me read it, two things broke the logjam. Continue reading “James Hansen and the whale, a tragi-comedy in four chapters”