One clean beach

Why is my local beach now free of plastic litter?

No pretty photograph for this one. How can you take a snap of something that isn’t there?

Plastic litter on my local beach, that’s what.

I moved to Spain 15 years ago. My beach walks were interrupted by regular collections of litter, almost all plastic of one sort or another: drinks bottles, throwaway shopping bags, formless lumps of polystyrene, broken tangles of fishing net. It was densest along the shoreline, so jetsam (nice word: its counterpart flotsam is floating junk).

Recently I have had to leave my spandex Supergramps suit at home. There is hardly any to collect. On reflection, the change has been slow, though I’ve only just noticed it. Why has this happened?

Continue reading “One clean beach”

Trump’s War on Coal IV

In the second of this series of posts, I reported on data from the SEIA and consultants WoodMac that cast doubt on FERC’s forecasts of “highly probable” new solar installation in the USA. I went so far as to characterize these as “politicised rubbish”.

At the time I did not have comparable data for wind. Now I do. In a press release, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports:

Of the total wind pipeline, 17,213 MW were under construction across 21 states at the end of first quarter. [….] Project developers also reported 21,949 MW of wind capacity in the advanced development stage, which also reached a record level. Projects in advanced development have not yet begun construction but are likely to come online in the near term because they have either signed a long-term contract, placed turbine orders, or are proceeding under utility ownership.

My italics.

The AWEA definition corresponds very closely to the SEIA/WoodMac criterion for solar and to any common-sense interpretation of the term “highly probable”. So FERC have got this badly wrong too.

Putting the data together for your convenience, I get this:

The implied coal retirements in the last line – implied by the AWEA and SEIA/WoodMac data – are based on the assumptions of static demand for electricity, one-for-one substitution of renewables for coal, and no change in the latter’s break-even capacity factor (CF). The continuous-equivalent number for the announced retirements is just reached by applying the fleet average and is probably inaccurate, but it plays no part in the rest of the calculation. Note that old coal plants are inflexible, unlike gas, and don’t contribute much to the needed firming backup for cheap intermittent renewables.

The table also assumes that all the utility projects listed by SEIA/WoodMac and the AWEA will be completed in the three-year horizon used by FERC. This is very likely, though recently solar developers have started signing PPAs with delivery as late as 2023. The CFs for wind and solar are conservative, as technical advances are still raising them.

The estimate therefore has a fair margin of error. But it does strongly suggest that coal retirements of well over twice those already notified to FERC are already baked into the cake, with more on the way.

* * * * * *

Politically, the key factor is how many more coal jobs are lost in the next 15 months, before the 2020 elections. Here the picture is much less clear, but qualitatively similar.

It’s a fairly safe assumption that all the wind and solar farms currently under construction will be working by the election and cutting demand for coal. Since solar is very quick to build once ground is broken, this may imply a large underestimate. Using the same simple methods as in my table, that translates to 11.5 GW of redundant coal generation. The actual coal plant closures may be delayed or anticipated; the impact on mining jobs will be immediate.

The number is in the same ballpark as recent experience. 15 GW of American coal plants closed in 2018, displaced by gas as much as renewables. ( I don’t attempt to take account of gas here, but it’s more bad news for coal.) The acceleration I predicted, and still do, looks as if it will come after the election. However, the now certain job losses, and the equally certain prospect of many more to come, will already be on a sufficient scale to show up Trump’s promises in 2016 to American coal-miners as a cynical fraud.

It looks as if Appalachians generally are slowly getting the message. Trump’s approval ratings in selected states, Morning Consult, for now and at the start of his term:

Holes in the ground!

The case for a large pumped storage programme in Appalachia

Senator (and Presidential pre-candidate) Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (not a candidate but lefty star) have published a draft Climate Equity Act. Here it is (pdf). It provides for principles, an Office, reports, consultations, and a platform for “frontline communities” to share their pain with the denizens of the Beltway. It reads like the work of a New Age therapist working in the bureaucracy of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Missing: any proposals for action that would actually do something for unemployed American coal-miners in say Harlan County, Kentucky.

Here’s my idea.

A 100% renewable electricity grid – actually a 90% one – based on cheap wind and solar electricity needs a lot of backup or firming to cover the gaps when there is no solar output (called “the night”) or little wind (week-long lulls mainly created by the procession of anticyclones that drive the weather in middle latitudes). Today, there is enough legacy baseload coal and nuclear power to reduce the problem, and natural gas to deal with what’s left, but they are all going to phase out soon in the GND. Actually the coal will go anyway regardless of the GND from price competition, and nuclear from age, but this plan is for GND supporters.

There is a longish list of technically feasible solutions or part-solutions. None of them are really cheap; but then, a good part of the cost of the electricity you buy today is to cover the rarely used peak generation capacity and the unused reserve. There are no free lunches here.

Sources: personal guesses except for deployment, for which here (pdf)

There is a lively argument in the “100% renewable” expert trade about the best method of firming. Very lively. Mark Jacobson went so far as to sue Christopher Clack for a hostile rebuttal of his first scenario for the USA, relying for firming on a rather peculiar scheme, since dropped, of retrofitting all existing US hydropower dams to run in burst mode, at much higher outputs for much shorter periods. I don’t include this false start.

Some of these technologies are in flux, others mature. It is therefore impossible to predict now the lowest-cost firming mix ten years ahead. The problem is that in a ten-year GND transition, there isn’t time to let things settle down. Some big spending decisions will have to be taken in the next few years, and some of them will turn out to be wrong in the sense of diverging from the optimum – there is not much risk of being stuck with an asset that simply does not work. The priority is as always to ensure a reliable supply, not to assure ratepayers suffering from power cuts that you were prudently trying to save them every last cent on their bills. The compressed timescale also calls for a strong federal policy lead and assumption of risks.

I want to make a case here for off-river pumped hydro storage (PHS).

It may not work out the cheapest in the end, but it’s a mature technology with no technical risk, known and reasonable costs, long working life, modest environmental impact (note off-river), and scaleable to any volume you want. Existing plants (pdf) provide 95% of the current US utility storage capacity. Its problem is that dams take a long time to build: at best five years, though with much less construction risk than nuclear plants. If the USA is going to rely on pumped storage to any significant extent, it will have to start building it out by 2025. There is no technical reason not to start sooner. Storage replaces peak gas immediately as soon as there is a worthwhile volume of wind and solar, which you already have.

Satellite view of Bath County PHS dams. The penstocks are inside the mountain. The height difference is 385 metres. Source

At least one expert, Andrew Blakers of the Australian National University, strongly recommends pumped hydro as the basis for firming a wind/solar power supply, along with more HVDC transmission. He has constructed 100% renewable scenarios (pdf) for the Australian NEM (the grid covering the populated East and South) using just these four technologies, with hourly balancing to match the current demand. This balancing costs an additional midpoint US$21 per Mwh on top of the raw wind+solar LCOE of midpoint US$49, a markup of 43%. His paper gives the (narrow) ranges and offers a large number of variants tweaking the assumptions in different ways. His base case calls for 16 GW of storage for 31 hours, making 490 Gwh, balancing a total annual demand of 205 Twh. The capital cost of the storage, based on replicating a standard unit costed by a hydro engineer, is US$600 per kw or US$9.6 bn for the whole package.

To get an order of magnitude for a US programme on the same lines, we will just scale up Blakers without any apology or attempt at adjustment. US consumption of electricity is 4,070 Twh a year, so the model calls for 318 GW of capacity at a cost of $191 bn. (Cross-check: the one-off PHS plant at Bath County, originally 2.1 GW, cost $1.6 bn in 1985, so on that basis 318 GW would have been $242 bn. The order of magnitude is OK, and there has been technical progress since in reversible generators and in tunnelling.)

Since we don’t know whether the alternatives will be cheaper or dearer, it does not make sense to put all the eggs in one basket. However, we can be pretty sure that PHS, as the dominant historical storage technology and still much the cheapest, will play a significant part. Picking with a pin, a 100 GW initial programme looks reasonable. As of 2017, 40 new PHS sites were already under active investigation by utilities and licenses applied for with eight, so we won’t start absolutely from scratch. But if we do, it will cost a ballpark $60 bn. In the context of the multi-trillion overall cost of the GND, this is clearly doable. The plants are long-lived revenue-earning assets: storage has a price, sometimes a high one. I don’t know what the ROI will be, and doubt if it matters very much.

PHS plants are very flexible on size and can adapt to different geographies. The world’s largest PHS plant, at Bath County in Virginia, has a capacity today of 3GW / 24 Gwh. But many working plants are much smaller, down to 100 MW or so. The programme could be met with 33 Bath Counties or 1,000 100 MW plants, or anything in between. The power generated is proportional to the head, and you can get more work from a given size of reservoirs if you can site the upper one higher. This all gives the planners a great deal of flexibility.

Where should the dams go? As a climate justice measure, it has to be Appalachia, since that is where most of the unemployed miners are and will be.

The mountain range is very extensive, seismically inactive, and high enough with typical crests of 900m. You only need 300m or so height difference for a decent PHS scheme. The number of potential sites is so large that the choice can often be made on grounds of economic deprivation. Socially, dam-building is a nearly ideal economic stimulus. The jobs are manly to match an old-fashioned culture, moderately skilled (highly skilled for tunnelling), and last for several years. Contrast suggestions that unemployed Appalachians should be retrained for installing solar in a foggy climate, or wind turbines on the few suitable hilltop sites, clashing with recreation.

How many jobs will be created? At its peak, Bath County had 3,400 workers on site. Applying the same ratio to our 100 GW programme, that would give 113,000 jobs. This is not realistic: smaller dams have different demands to big ones, the employment peaks won’t be synchronised, tunnelling machines are much better, and so on. But it is certainly enough to put a sizeable dent in unemployment across the region, before counting the spending multiplier in local communities. The ambition of the whole programme may even be constrained by the availability of workers. The jobs are only for a decade, but this buys time to develop other opportunities.

How to set up the programme? It is both large and specialised. The obvious solution is to copy Roosevelt’s TVA and set up the Appalachian Storage Authority, under a joint federal/inter-state governance structure, with borrowing and eminent domain powers and so on. It could have a fixed 20-year life, and sell the dams on to states or utilities before winding up. A programme of earmarked federal grants to states would risk sabotage by GOP state governments, which have shown on the Medicaid expansion that they are prepared to sacrifice the welfare of their citizens to ideology. Centralisation and standardization should also work out cheaper in design and project management. There are risks either way.

I don’t know if the scheme can realistically be extended to the Powder River Basin miners in Wyoming. Since their mines are open-cast and highly automated, the miners are far fewer – 5,535 in the state in 2018.  The Rockies have even more and better potential sites for PHS than the Appalachians but they are not SFIK anywhere near the mines. I suspect the climate justice warriors will have to think of something else.

Question to Senator Harris and Representative Ocasio-Cortez:

  • Do you support this plan or something like it?
  • If not, what is your alternative plan that gives former coal miners decently paid jobs where they and their families want to live?

Suppose you both win your political and electoral battles. If you content yourselves with just creating a cool new federal bureaucracy for climate justice, the miners will say: you may be prettier and better spoken than Mitch and Manchin, but in the end you are just another pair of politicians who spin fine words and let us down. They won’t be entirely wrong.

Footnote 1

In this post I have ignored the steelworkers and other groups in Appalachia whose situation is often just as bad as that of coal-miners. The issue here is framed by the two representatives as climate justice, implying specific action for those who must lose their jobs to secure the essential energy transition. In Appalachia, that means coal-miners, and they are the measuring-stick for my plan and for any alternative. The plan will of course benefit other groups as well, and these wider benefits should be considered in the planning.

I have no idea what to do for Texan oilfield roustabouts. They are doing all right for now, but that won’t last. Let’s think of something.

Footnote 2

The title is, as alert RBC readers will have spotted, a h/t to this famous passage of Keynes:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

General Theory, Chapter 10, section VI

My dams, being useful, are “houses and the like”.

Footnote 3

As in Australia, the national grid is a good way of keeping storage costs down through geographical smoothing. The Australian population, and hence the variability of demand, is crammed into a single vertical time zone. An HVDC line from Sydney to Perth captures useful smoothing of wind and solar supply but not of demand. From New York to San Francisco, it does both. The grid has an even higher payoff in the USA, lowering the storage costs.

Footnote 4

If anybody wants to talk to someone who really knows about this stuff, Andrew Blakers is in the phone book: +61 2 612 55905, andrew.blakers@anu.edu.au

Update 08/08/2019

Blakers points me to a world atlas his team has prepared with 616,000 (not a typo) potential pumped hydro storage sites identified from satellite images. The theoretical collective storage capacity is a hundred times anything we are likely to need. Some of them are in places like Patagonia and Kamchatka that are fairly safe from the bulldozers, but that still leaves innumerable more useful locations. The database lists 33,000 site pairs in the USA, the majority in the Rockies  but a good number in the Appalachians – eyeballing, a few thousand. Total US potential storage 1.5 million Gwh. (The huge spreadsheet does not help you find geographical locations, to explore you have to work off the detailed zoomable map, example here, and then copy and paste the coordinates into Google Earth). Some of these sites will be home to protected snail darters or the like, others would drown the governor’s hunting cabin. That still leaves plenty.

Is ad hominem a fallacy?

Sometimes not always. Wonkish.

I got into an interesting argument in the comments on a post I wrote on nuclear energy. Keith wrote something that draws a tangent of much wider import:

There was intense opposition to nuclear power from many activists before anyone was focused on climate change, so now there is a credibility problem for critics, i.e., “Group that always hated nuclear power on principle still hates nuclear power for new reason” isn’t persuasive to most voters.

The proposition is that nuclear opponents changed their argument, which indicates opportunism and bad faith, ergo many people see this as invalidating the argument.

I challenged the fact pattern in the comments thread there, and see no evidence of the alleged tacking. (Any reader comments on the issue please in the other post thread, not here). Still, let’s assume it’s true. So what?

At first sight this is simply an example of the ad hominem fallacy, or as the French nicely say, “procès d’intention”. The motives and character of the person making an argument are simply irrelevant to its validity. One of the routine jobs of intellectuals, public or no, is to raise the red flag on such elementary mistakes and tell their authors to cut it out.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The case is more complex than with a straight logical fallacy like petitio principii, and several strands need to be disentangled.

Keith is undoubtedly right to think that ordinary people do weigh credibility in assessing arguments. I suspect this is part of Daniel Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking: the fast, efficient and kludgy Hare processes that allowed our distant ancestors to make quick decisions based on incomplete information. These are (though Kahneman does not make the claim) probably hard-wired into the brains of their descendants, that is us. They are in contrast with the slow and effortful Type 2 Tortoise processes of abstract reasoning. Dismissing arguments from untrustworthy sources saves time and allows us to move on.

But, says our Type 2 brain, it’s still a fallacy with a real practical downside. Dismissing tainted sources makes us miss out on some useful reasoning. This is not a remote possibility. A good example from an extremely tainted source is the Nazi opposition to smoking and cruelty to animals. As far as I can tell, this was based on sensible premises – unlike their equally correct suspicion of the austerity financial policies recommended by bankers, influenced for at least some by the belief that the banks were controlled by a cabal of sinister Jewish incubi determined to impoverish Aryan Germans (link to revolting cartoon from 1931). The term “batshit crazy” does not do justice to this evil fantasy.

Other examples are the famous Milgram and Stanford Prison https://en.wikipexperiments in psychology, which show how easy it is to get normal people to commit atrocities. As I understand it these would in their original form now be considered unethical, as the subjects are very distressed when the façade is torn down and they find out what they are capable of. The results are still valuable, and add to the obviously unrepeatable field observations of Christopher Browning on reservist SS troopers. More broadly, it is simply part of education to learn to address arguments from people you find uncongenial.

That’s one side. On the other, it is surely not required to treat tainted and reputable sources equally. Read the whole of the now famous tirade of Daniel Davies about the justifications put forward for Gulf War II:

Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. …. Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless… There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world.

Fair enough. So we face a procedural dilemma. Neither full-on obedience to the ad hominem rule nor its simple rejection seem adequate. Where do we draw the line?

We do need to distinguish between claims of fact and the reasoning built on them. For facts, the legal maxim falsus in unum, falsus in omnia is a fair guide: don’t trust liars, if you must use their work, double-check every claim they make. But what about their reasoning? Can’t we evaluate this independently of the claims of fact?

If reasoning were all syllogisms or mathematical deduction, we no doubt could. The following real-life example is is a perfectly sound logical inference, albeit from unacceptable premises:

  • Socrates is a corrupter of youth.
  • The laws of Athens say that a corrupter of youth must be put to death.
  • The laws of Athens are just.
  • Therefore Socrates must die.

If we disagree with the conclusion, and we do, it’s necessary to attack one or other of the premises. But in the typical case, facts are linked by inductive not deductive chains, calling on assumptions about the laws and state of nature as well as judgments of probabilities, both scientific and psychological. Would Saddam Hussein attack Israel if he had WMDs? Would the Iraqi people welcome an invading army of liberation? These are not yes/no facts.

In these complex assessments, trustworthiness is surely relevant. We rely on experts – doctors, statisticians, rocket scientists, economists, engineers, intelligence analysts, reporters – to inform us how the world works, drawing on long study or experience we can never ourselves emulate. We have to be able to trust them. Expert judgement is fallible, but it usually beats amateurs picking with a pin or clicking on an ad in Facebook.

This even applies, I understand, in the higher reaches of pure mathematics, the temple of deductive reasoning, where a new proof can be hundreds of pages long or the printout of a computer program exhaustively searching thousands of cases. I recall (but cannot trace) a description of the social process of acceptance of a new proof by the mathematical community, based on trust in colleagues expert in the relevant sub-area who accept the proof on detailed examination.

Trustworthiness is not a binary concept but a scale. We may allow that complete untrustworthiness is binary, as with Daniel Davies’ proven liars. So the ad hominem problem for inductive reasoning as well as claims of fact becomes one of calibrating our trust discount in a particular case not involving such liars.

Keith rightly mentions the emotional investment some may have in an issue as a distorting factor. We cannot usually wish this away by only listening to neutral experts. The investment is not determined by the people but by the issue. The validity of Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem took him years of dedicated work, but there were no impassioned pro-and anti-theorem schools in the background. Colleagues found a hole in his first proof, which he calmly acknowledged, then fixed to general applause. Contrast drugs policy, abortion, and nuclear power, where passions run high on both sides. Mark Jacobson (anti-nuclear) actually sued Christopher Clack (pro-nuclear) and the National Academy of Sciences as publisher over a hostile rebuttal to his first 100% renewables scenario. Both are reputable career scientists.

In such fields, it is generally impossible to find anybody with deep expert knowledge who does not have strongly held opinions on one side or the other of the relevant policy. Controversy and conflict are integral to the scientific and democratic processes. This applies in spades to advocacy groups, formed specifically to advance one or other policy. Greenpeace is not going to give you a sympathetic in-depth analysis of coal-mining. But its scenarios of solar deployment have consistently been much more accurate than those of professionals at the IEA.

What should the common reader or blogger do in this situation? I can only offer bromides.

  • Eliminate known liars and hired propagandists completely from consideration, see above.
  • Take into account formal credentials, institutional affiliations and possible conflicts of interest, as guides not filters.
  • Check whether the author fairly represents the opposing view or sets up straw men, notes unhelpful data or brushes it under the carpet.
  • Ignore tone short of abuse. Bias can hide under a façade of judicious neutrality, passion can be combined with fairness (see the model of Mark Kleiman). (This one may be a personal preference).
  • Check your own bias and lean over backwards to be fair to the side you aren’t on. IIRC David Hume, when writing the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, wrote to theologians to be sure he was presenting the cases of Cleanthes and Demea as well as possible, assuming he was Philo himself. (Can’t confirm this, help wanted.)
  • Remember that historians deal with and correct for biased sources all the time. Perhaps there is no other kind.

We now have an unsatisfactory answer to the question posed in the title: it depends. Sometimes the ad hominem rule calls for a red card (off the pitch), at others just an orange one with a dimmer (proceed with more or less caution).

Not much help? Welcome to the real world. Trust me.

[Update 30/7/2019]: A 2006 blog post by noted Australian economist John Quiggin on very similar lines.

[Update 2, 4/08/2019]: Australian conservative pundit Andrew Bot reminds us that there is another form of ad hominem attack, one that is not only fallacious but obnoxious. He devotes an entire column in Murdoch’s Melbourne newspaper the Herald-Sun to an unhinged and scurrilous personal attack on the teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Sample:

I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.

More here. Ms Thunberg has Asperger’s syndrome and does not conceal the fact. She shares it with several other famous people, possibly including Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. I’m not sure what condition Andrew Bolt suffers from, but it probably ends in “-path”.

Nuclear zombies

Kevin Drum goes off the rails. (Uncharacteristically; here is his nice tribute to Mark .)

I’d like to point out just how easy a non-carbon form of capitalism would be—and not just to imagine, but to accomplish. Here it is:

Over the next ten years, build about 5,000 standardized 5 TWh nuclear reactors worldwide and retire all fossil-fuel plants. Mandate a 20-year switch to electric vehicles. This would cost around $3 trillion per year, which isn’t much, and would cut carbon emissions by about 80 percent. Done.

Note that I’m not recommending this, nor saying that it would be mere child’s play. I’m just saying it’s far more feasible than reconstructing the entire global economy over the next decade …

Where to begin? This post will be completely unoriginal, but if it brings well-worn facts to the attention of a few new readers, it will be worthwhile. (Shade of MK: don’t be afraid to repeat the truth.)

One: no nuclear power reactor can be built anywhere without a cast-iron government guarantee replacing third-party liability insurance and government assumption of responsibility for waste, in practice a non-market price too (Hinkley C). A mass reactor buildout is the most socialist project you can imagine.

Two: As of mid-2018, 50 power reactors were under construction worldwide. The industry struggles and fails to build them on time, let alone to budget. The 50 have on average been under construction for 6.5 years. “The average construction time of the latest 53 units in nine countries that started up since 2008 was 10.1 years with a very large range from 4.1 to 43.5 years.” (World Nuclear Industry Status report, 2018, pdf). This is the best today’s battle-hardened reactor builders, the survivors in a steadily declining industry, can do. Building 5,000 at a time would have to be done by completely inexperienced workers, engineers and project managers. What could possibly go wrong?

Three: Drum thinks that worries about safety and costs can be addressed by using new designs: Generation IV, thorium, small modular reactors. No full-size commercial prototype exists for any of them, or even a fully licensed design. The normal procedure would be to build a handful of prototypes (at best 5 years construction, plus a crash two years for design and approval). Then you mass-produce the most successful prototype, betting there is one (another 6 years, allowing just one for design). So you don’t make any impact on emissions for at best 13 years, beyond the deadline for action set by the IPCC. Historical experience suggests 20 years. Plan B is to forget about prototyping and go straight to building 5,000 full-sized power reactors using completely untested designs and builders with no experience. This is not sane. (H/t to John Quiggin for emphasizing the timing issues.)

Four: Lazards’ 12th survey of US generating costs gives the comparative unsubsidised LCOEs per Mwh as:

  • Utility PV solar $40 – $46 (midpoint $43)
  • Onshore wind $29 – $56 (midpoint $42.5)
  • Nuclear $57 – $148 (midpoint $102.5) $112 to $189 (midpoint $151)

The wind and solar numbers are hard data from hundreds of developers. The nuclear ones are optimistic guesses, as no new reactor site has been started in the USA for just short of a decade. This shows what real capitalists think of the technology. I wonder what snake-oil salesman Lazards got the $57 low number from: it’s entirely out of line with recent experience in the USA and Europe with reactor construction. [Update: Sorry about that] The unsubsidised tag is incidentally a joke – there is no market price for the state guarantees for nuclear. So even in the best-case scenario, new nuclear in the USA will cost twice three times what you can get wind and solar for. There is no reason to think the global pattern will be significantly different. [Update: Jacobson gives the cost ratio as 2.3 to 7.4 , consistent with my rough estimate]

BUT, say nuclear advocates, nuclear reactors offer reliable! baseload! supply (90% availability) while wind and solar are intermittent (hiss hiss) and have to be firmed with gas or storage. This is a half-truth. The true part is that wind and solar do need firming with despatchable storage and transmission; I’ll go with Andrew Blakers’ calculated markup of 50% for Australia (pdf). But nuclear plants are lumpy and also need backup in case they have unplanned outages, an infrequent but regular event. (Simultaneous mechanical failure of equivalent volumes of wind turbines or solar panels is is no more likely than a giant asteroid strike.) Most of the world’s pumped hydro storage was built as backup for nuclear plants. Let’s say we need a 25% safety margin, either in the form of excess nuclear plants or the same mixture as for renewables. That pushes up your costs.

In addition, the claimed “baseload” feature is a bug to grid managers. Electricity demand cycles over the day and the year. Let’s just look at the daily cycle. A random day in January in California:

Source: Vox

The minimum load, about 21 GW, is in the small hours. The peak, at 6 pm, comes in at about 32 GW, 50% more. So California would, in Drum’s scenario, need 23 GW of nuclear (at 90% availability) to cover the baseload. But going all-nuclear, it needs another 12 GW to cover the peak – running around half the time. That hits the LCOE, which is based on running round the clock. The average capacity factor drops to 26.5/35 or 76%. It’s lower again if you superimpose the annual cycle. By itself, the lower CF pushes up the LCOE by at least 15%. At first sight that’s not too bad, but power reactors are designed to run all the time. Ramping them up and down imposes stresses and shortens life, though the French are forced to do it with their huge nuclear fleet.

Taking these factors together, the various operational constraints just about balance the availability advantage of nuclear and maintain the proposition that 100% nuclear would cost at least twice three times the 100% renewables solution.

Drum costs his thought experiment at $3 trn a year. Using the same back-of-a-napkin methods, say $1 trn for EVs, leaving $2 trn for electricity, of which $0.5 trn for renewables, so $1.5 trn for nuclear reactors or $15 trn over ten years. I have shown that half two-thirds of this, $7.5 $10 trn, is an opportunity cost over wind/solar/storage. In what universe does it make sense to waste trillions of dollars on an unreliable and complex technology with problems we know all too much about?

I could go on: the waste headache, proliferation risks (Iran), the negative learning curve (in contrast to the well-behaved ones for wind, solar, and batteries, and known flat costs for pumped hydro and transmission), and fading public acceptance after Chernobyl and Fukushima. But the issues I’ve covered are enough to make it crystal clear that nuclear power is an obsolete, expensive and multiply risky technology we no longer need. Time to draw a line, break the bad news tactfully, and present the gold watch for long and moderately faithful service.

What annoys me most about Drum’s little jeu d’esprit is the subtext that since a massive rollout of nuclear power is evidently impossible, so is the whole GND or fast transition. This is false. As I’ve noted here before, cost estimates of the energy component of the GND from supporters (Jacobson) and foes (Holtz-Eakin), come in quite similar, under $1 trn a year, before netting out the current investment in oil and gas. This is large but practicable in the $20 trn a year US economy.

Zooming in, FERC thinks there are 188 GW of renewable generating plants being planned in the USA for installation in the next three years, say 63 GW continuous equivalent at an average 33% CF. The remaining coal capacity a year ago was 268 GW or 144 GW continuous equivalent. If all the planned renewables are built, they will make 44% of the coal fleet redundant in three years. Not all of them will see the light of day, but most will because they are cheaper and, with storage and gas backup, do the job just fine. A complete phaseout of American thermal coal in the next decade is not only feasible: it’s what current trends predict.

(Shade of Mark Kleiman again: Is it about something that matters? Check. Have you proofread for typos? Check. Source links and quotations verified? Check. [Update: not carefully enough, I’m afraid.] As short as needed to make the point? Guilty, but you know me.)

RBC smartphone review

Really cheap and full-featured smartphones arrive in Africa.

For your weekend edification, I bring you a smartphone review. I have not actually seen or touched the phone in question, for reasons that will become evident, so I am going entirely on Web information.

The phone is a basic model sold by transnational South African mobile telco MTN. It’s the Mobicel Astro, and retails for 449 rand or $33.

This is not the cheapest on the market. MTN will sell you this for 249 rand or $18. Vendors sensibly avoid the term “smartphone” for such handsets. They don’t run a full mobile OS and are limited to browsing and, crucially, messaging and VOIP with WhatsApp. The Astro is recognizably from the same genus as the iPhone and its many emulators.

Here is a table comparing the Astro to the original and the latest iPhone.

I leave out the infinite variety of apps they can all run. Here are a few; I mark with an asterisk the ones where the smartphone does as good a job as a purpose-built device, for the others it’s second best, just as with a Swiss Army knife.

*Phone, *calculator, *clock/timer/alarm, *calendar/diary, *geolocator, *messaging device, *notebook, camera, recorder, compass, flashlight, Web browser, word processor, spreadsheet processor, music player, video player, photo viewer, UI for plug-in sensor, game console.

Some quick takeaways.

1. The specs of the Astro are at least as good as those of the original iPhone in every respect, at under a tenth of the price.

2. Apple has not given its customers any price gains, and has even raised prices.

3. Technical progress since the first iPhone has been modest. The $1000 iPhone XS has just two significant new functions over the 12-year-old original: the selfie camera (which the Astro has) and the biometric ID (which the Astro lacks).

Now of course Apple fans will say: iPhones are better made; everything works better and faster; the A12 processor chip in particular is a monster that can run a battleship; the image quality from the camera is of a different order from cheap phones. All true. I maintain that the main revolution was all in the original iPhone, and the Astro matches it.

The Astro and its competitors are far more important devices in their social impact than an incremental status display like the iPhone XS. In Africa the Internet means mobile, outside a few lucky cities. Mobile phone penetration is 44%: more than one per family. A third of these phones are smart, or 250 million. Cheap handsets will speed this up.

Much of this impact is good: better access to information on health, prices and technology, for one. But we have seen in the well-educated USA and UK the hacking of major elections by manipulation of social media. In the Rwandan genocide 0f 1994, the Interahamwe only had old-fashioned radio to work with. Their successors will have Facebook and Twitter.

Trump’s War on Coal III

The US coal collapse is speeding up as predicted.


Previous posts in this series: Donald Trump’s War on Coal , Trump’s War on Coal II

In January I looked at the state of US coal and concluded:


It is highly probable that demand for coal will fall by the order of magnitude implied by the FERC data. My prediction is that the pace of closures, and the loss of mining jobs, will roughly triple.

I did not predict that it would happen so fast.

FERC regularly updates a table including planned retirements of coal generating plants up to three years ahead. The April table gave 13,992 MW. In May this rose to 17,054 MW: an increase of 3 GW in one month, just over 1% of the remaining capacity.

It’s technically possible, given the rolling horizon, that these 3 GW were already in the spreadsheet for May 2022 and the forecast has just caught up. This is very unlikely, and makes little difference even if it were true.

The obvious interpretation is that utility executives across the United States have concluded:

1. Their coal plants are increasingly uneconomic compared for gas, renewables, and storage, and carry growing reputational and policy risks at federal (>2020) and state level.

2. The Trump Administration’s policy to save coal is a sham. Even rhetorically, it is disappearing: Trump did not mention coal in his lastest set-pieces on energy (July 8 remarks, fact sheet).

3. They might as well bite the bullet now. Nothing will get better for coal.

The information the utilities supply on closures to FERC, the federal agency responsible for the reliability of the national electricity supply, must be hard. These aren’t predictions but decisions. There is more of the same they are still mulling over. And once they have decided to close a plant, there are pressures to bring the date forward. The collapse will go on speeding up.

With oversight from Washington in the hands of feckless, inept and amoral ex-lobbyists, the end of coal mining in America is coming at an appalling social cost. David Roberts at Vox documents one example, the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming. The short version:

1. The mines were run by Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha made a very bad bet on Appalachian coal and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015.

2. Te restructuring involved abandoning critical health benefits to 4,580 non-union miners and spouses, slashing the cleanup liabilities, multi-million dollar bonuses to executives, and spinning off the mines.

3. The buyer of the two mines was Blackjewel, run by an Appalachian grifter called Jeff Hoops. Hoops had apparently no plan to nurse the mines back to viability. Instead he milked the cash flow for more insider bonuses while not paying taxes and other creditors. IANAL but it looks to me like a classic long-firm fraud.

4. Blackjewel suddenly collapsed two weeks ago in a cloud of bouncing cheques, some for wages. It is heading for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and a full liquidation. The state will be left with the uncovered cleanup liabilities, and support for the abandoned miners, assuming they are nor just left to cough their lungs out untreated in the rugged Western way.

5. Roberts does not go into this, but I assume that the political influence of Philip Anschutz, the wind baron of Wyoming, has been strengthened by the fiasco. Wyoming will be less helpful in future to his coal rivals. The state may even go after Mr. Hoops. Good hunting.

PS: let me advertise an old proposal I made here in 2010: nationalize coal. It really is the most humane way to manage the rundown of an entire sector in the public interest. US coal companies are to a first approximation worthless, once you include the cleanup, pension and health liabilities they are trying to evade. So the fair price to shareholders is $0 a share. Bondholders and unsecured creditors? How about their taking the same haircut they are getting anyway under Chapter 11 bankruptcy? The taxpayer will be on the hook for the shortfall in the funds for cleanup, pensions and health, but that’s inevitable in any scenario. What nationalization saves is the looting by the likes of Mr. Hoop, and it allows for proper planning of the reconversion measures.

Socialism? Sure. That’s what makes my proposal sadly unrealistic. Do you have a better one?

Trump’s War on Coal II

The collapse of US coal continues.

In January I posted a piece on coal under Trump, concluding

My prediction is that the pace of closures, and the loss of mining jobs, will roughly triple.

How’s it going? The coal plant closures continue, but it’s far too early to test my prediction. I do however have some new evidence on my side.

I’m not talking about the long-awaited announcement by Trump’s EPA of its replacement for Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulation in the form of the Affordable Clean Energy rule (ACE). The CPP was moribund once SCOTUS loyally suspended it, on the laughable pretext that the Trump Administration would shortly produce a workable alternative form of regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. ACE will be immediately caught up in litigation so it won’t have any effect either: it’s no longer regulations killing coal but economics. For instance, Republican Florida and Texas are both in the middle of a solar boom.

ACE is a stunt to retain the fraying support of Rust Belt voters along the lines of “At least we tried, but we had no answer to AOC’s superhero powers and superior Chinese and Danish technology, backed by the machinations of the Deep State”. Less an ace than a desperate lob from behind the baseline, inviting an easy smash. Fake news.

No, it’s something else.

Continue reading “Trump’s War on Coal II”

Feline asthma

Cat asthma as a political argument to Republican pet owners.

This is about public policy, promise.

My elderly cat Hobbes now has a respiratory problem, as I do. It’s probably feline asthma. Cats get asthma like humans, while dogs don’t. One cause, say vets, is air pollution.

Credit: MeowValet on YouTube

The literature seems stronger on indoor air pollution than outdoor. Second-hand tobacco smoke is a culprit, as are wood fires and incense. I found a serious controlled Taiwanese study on indoor pollution making the link. The effect of outdoor pollution has been less studied for animals. One Mexican study creepily found similar lesions in the brains of big-city dogs to those found in humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems safer just to rely on the parallelism in the symptoms and mechanisms of cat and human asthma, and the massive literature connecting the human form to air pollution, to conclude that all air pollution is bad for cats too. The effect is reinforced by the height difference: cats and dogs breathe in air at car exhaust level.

This hypothesis suggests a political strategy. In the USA, there are said to be 49.2 million households with a cat. There are 50.4 million with children under 18. That’s 39% each. I couldn’t find a combined breakdown, but let’s assume that the two are independent. That would give 30 million childless households with a cat. The real total will be different, but it’s still a very large number.

This demographic skews old, white and therefore Republican. It cares for its cats. It strikes me as a good argument to make to this group in favour of the energy transition and the GND that the policy will protect the health of their pets.

Some will say: this is ridiculous. Are there really a non-trivial number of voters who will be swayed by the health of cats but not the health of children? If there are, surely they are either “low-information voters” – idiots – or moral imbeciles, and lost causes in either case?

My answers are (a) quite likely and (b) no.

Let me make the case for the defence. The questions are linked by the broader issue of moral myopia.

Continue reading “Feline asthma”

Meet the Siemens SP260D

Electric motors are taking over from ICEs, for everything.

To make a change from the ongoing TV fantasy drama The Fall of the American Empire, aka The Game of the Throneless, let me introduce you to the Siemens SP260D.

This is an electrical aircraft engine. More details here.

This is only the second of Siemens’ efforts in the line, though they have been making electric motors since the 1890s. (AEG beat them to it, in 1889.) The striking datum is the power-to-weight ratio: 260 kW (footnote) from 50 kg, making 5.2 kW/kg. What should we compare this to?

A table of power-to-weight ratios for a sample of engines on the market today.

References: Siemens, Magnix, Lycoming, Tesla, Honda, Mercedes-AMG)

Continue reading “Meet the Siemens SP260D”