Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Founded by Mark Kleiman (1951-2019)
Author: James Wimberley
James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu MendonÃ§a. The cat overlords are now three.
I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naÃ¯f questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia.
James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web
Some random blogger, last month, arguing for a large US investment in pumped hydro storage:
Picking with a pin, a 100 GW initial programme looks reasonable. […] it will cost a ballpark $60 bn. […] 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.
Candidate Elizabeth Warren, adopting Inslee’s climate plan with bells and whistles, earlier today:
We’ll provide dedicated support for the four Power Marketing Administrations, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help them build publicly-owned clean energy assets and deploy clean power to help communities transition off fossil fuels. And we’ll expand investments in smart energy storage solutions and cybersecurity for the grid.
Pretty close. The only thing the Appalachian Regional Commission can usefully spend money on is pumped storage, so Warren’s plan would buy some. However, her plan lacks specificity, numbers, and immediacy. “If you build a Bath County dam here, it will create 1,000 jobs for five years”. She achieves this elsewhere:
I’ll also invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, including ensuring that every federal interstate highway rest stop hosts a fast-charging station by the end of my first term in office.
See the difference?
China is currently building 30 GW of pumped hydro, on top of the existing stock of 19 GW, a shade under the USA’s 24 GW. The programme includes one 3.6 GW megaproject at Fengning which will knock Bath County from its three-decade reign as the world’s largest. Another 6 GW has just been added to the pipeline, taking the future total to 55 GW. The USA is being left in the dust and should aim at a bare minimum to match this.
rollout is steered by China State Grid, the huge national
high-voltage transmission monopoly. Warren’s plan leaves out a
national grid too, merely rebranding FERC, weak tea by her high
standards. But it may be good politics. Steering new funding to
existing public bodies can be got through Congress by reconciliation.
A national grid and electricity market would need primary
legislation, a very scarce resource in the Warren (or Sanders or
FWIW, if I were an American Democrat and primary elector, I would focus less on the details of the rival climate plans, and more on the ability of the candidates to get anything done. The plans will converge, as there are few serious ideological divides among Democrats equivalent to those on universal health care. The nearest is on nuclear power. Sanders rules it out; Biden will spend on research; Warren ducks. Fair enough, as the practical question is merely how much money to throw away on new reactor designs that will never be built commercially at any scale. Nuclear is a side-issue, not worth wasting political capital on. It’s more important who the new President would appoint as Secretary for Energy.
For aficionados, there’s an interesting machinery-of-government angle. One part of the DoE’s job is minding the nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear waste. These are thousand-year headaches, with no tolerance for mistakes, and highly technical, though they only create major policy issues irregularly. That is why Obama appointed top-flight nuclear physicists as Secretaries. This inevitably creates a pro-nuclear bias in the other side of the job, energy policy. Warren (&c) might consider hiving off the nuclear stewardship job to a distinct non-Cabinet agency with considerable professional autonomy, like the Fed, and a real scientist in the Chu or Moniz mould as head. The Cabinet-level energy and climate czar would have plenty of other things to do, leading a multi-trillion-dollar GND.
A PR photo taken at the opening on Thursday of an offshore wind farm in Denmark:
At the Horns Rev 3 opening, left to right: CEO of Vattenfall Magnus Hall, Chairman of Vattenfall Lars G. Nordström, HRH Crown Prince of Denmark, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Minister of Climate, Energy and Utilities Dan Jørgensen, and pupils from Hvide Sande School
What are the smiling kids doing there? Their contribution to building the wind farm is nil. They were roped in to show that the powerful adults in the back row are Concerned about future generations. Should I blame Greta Grunberg, or John Kerry, who took his scene-stealing granddaughter along to sign the Paris Agreement in New York?
Picky, picky, you say. If it helps and does no harm to the kids, fine. But let’s not mistake charming photo ops for action. To be fair, in this case they had some action to celebrate. The wind farm is for now the largest in Scandinavia, with a nameplate capacity of 407 MW.
There is much more cuteness to come along these lines.
PS: On reflection, there is a clear distinction between the Kerry photo and the Danish one. Kerry’s granddaughter is interacting with him, not the assembled grandees. She is fascinated by Grandpa’s behaviour; he is doing something unusual she does not understand, but it’s clearly very important to him, so she wants to be part of it. In the Danish photo, there is no interaction, the adults are not looking at the kids or talking to them. They are just exploited extras on the stage. Maybe the suits talked to the kids at another time, but it’s not what the photo says.
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?
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.
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:
Update 3 September
To do the FERC staff justice, they have changed the concept again and now less subjectively list new generating plants “under construction”. In the “energy infrastructure” report for June, the numbers I am interested in are:
coal plant retirements to July 2022 16.3 GW (+3.0 GW from May)
wind under construction 27.1 GW (+1.6 GW)
solar under construction 17.1 GW (+2.3 GW)
gas under construction less retirements 21.7 GW (+3.5 GW)
The small victory for professionalism should be praised. Note however that since wind and solar plants take at most 2 years to put up, FERC’s table is no longer very useful as a three-year projection. What we can say is that at least 44 GW of new wind and solar will be up and running before next November, and cutting coal sales. I make that 22 GW of coal generation replaced, plus up to another 13 GW from gas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
If anybody wants to talk to someone who really knows about this stuff, Andrew Blakers is in the phone book: +61 2 612 55905, email@example.com
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.
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
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
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
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
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”.
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:
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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
obvious interpretation is that utility executives across the United
States have concluded:
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).
They might as well bite the bullet now. Nothing will get better for
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:
The mines were run by Alpha
Natural Resources. Alpha made
a very bad
bet on Appalachian coal and declared
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.
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?
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.
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