The Left vs The Climate

I’m still in the process of moving house (I’ve now arrived in Tassie, but my furniture is still in transit…). But I have my Notebook computer, so I’m set, right?

Anyway, on the weekend I had time, over a large coffee, to read through Will Boisvert‘s essay on pastoral fantasies and the alternative ‘high energy planet’ (a critique of Naomi Klein’s new book). It is absolutely brilliant, and I immediately thought it was a perfect exposition of the philosophy that developed on BNC over the last 5 years, in reaction to the global sustainability challenge.  Anyway, I asked Will, and Michael Shellenberger from The Breakthrough Institute (who published the original article) if I might reproduce it here on BNC, and they graciously agreed. So here it is.

Read this (please!), and think carefully. We must all think and act rationally to tackle this challenge. There is no room for cognitive dissonance or denial, whatever ‘side’ you feel you are on.

Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein’s Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet

Liberal and progressive politics used to embrace energy, technology, and modernity for human liberation and environmental quality. Today it embraces a reactionary apocalyptic pastoralism epitomized by Naomi Klein’s latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. As such, Klein’s book is symptomatic of the Left’s disturbing turn against progressive, pragmatic action for people and the environment.

Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before.

Now comes global warming, a cataclysm seemingly so dire that it cannot be finessed with reformist half-measures, so all-encompassing that capitalism would have to leave the planet to dodge it. For many on the Left, capitalism is at the heart of climate change: the crisis of over-combustion stems from the capitalist dynamic of overproduction and overconsumption, all driven by the logic of over-concentration of profits in the hands of the wealthy few. And nothing will resolve the crisis, the Left hopes, but the transformation of every aspect of the world capitalism has made — to pull consumerism, waste, hierarchy, competition, trade and alienation up by the roots and replace them with a political economy of sufficiency, recycling, egalitarianism, cooperation, localism, and nature.

It was almost inevitable that Naomi Klein, the Left’s preeminent celebrity journalist, would make herself the mouthpiece of this mind-wave. The Canadian writer-pundit and Nation columnist is a master of broad frameworks and far-reaching implications. She has already written two books — No Logo, on the corporate takeover of culture, and The Shock Doctrine, on the neoliberal take-over of economies — that crystallized huge clouds of progressive discontent into catchy memes. Her trademark blend of light wonkery, sardonic prose, sharp-eyed reportage and fist-waving militance appeals to every left constituency from academics to Occupiers. Most important, her penchant for tying absolutely anything she can think of into her thesis du jour feels tailor-made for climate change, the most omnipresent and multifaceted of subjects.

Her new manifesto, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a wide-ranging synthesis of Left-green doctrine on the entwinement of ecology and economy. It’s about belching smoke-stacks, thickening carbon dioxide, melting icesheets, acidifying oceans, shattering hurricanes, and searing droughts. It’s also about callous oil companies, preening billionaires, corrupt politicians, environmental groups subborned by corporate cash, hard-pressed farmers, desperate workers in dirty jobs, and downtrodden natives defending their land. This is all of a piece to Klein: the fight for a sustainable economy is also the fight for a fair and humane one, a furtherance of struggles for labor rights, civil rights, welfare rights, and land reform, for grassroots democracy against elite power.

By aligning these immediate struggles for justice with the collective battle to save the planet, she writes, climate change can “bring together all of these still living movements” and “right those festering wrongs at last — the unfinished business of liberation” [459].

For Klein, that alignment will spark not just programmatic clarity and mass mobilization, but spiritual redemption as well. Coal, in her view, is the dark heart of industrial capitalism and its mania for “total domination of both nature and people,” [173] and has turned us into “a society of grave-robbers” feeding off buried fossils. In abandoning it we will forge a new bond with the natural world and “[derive] our energy directly from the elements that sustain life” [176].

Even more than in her previous books, Klein advances a grand vision of “changing how we live, how our economies function, even the stories we tell about our place on earth,” [4] along with a sensibility that combines apocalyptic dread with utopian yearning to stimulate revolutionary determination.

Unfortunately, the result is a garbled mess stumbling endlessly over its own contradictions. Her understanding of the technical aspects of energy policy — indispensable for any serious discussion of sustainability — is weak and biased, marked by a myopic boosterism of renewables and an unthinking rejection of nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources. Having declared climate change an “existential crisis for the human species,” [15] she rules out some of the most effective means of dealing with it.

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The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?

Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT, holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry, and is an experienced industrial R&D leader.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorganFirst published in Chemistry in Australia.

Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power.  Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization.

The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al.1 in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it.  It takes energy to make a power plant – to manufacture its components, mine the fuel, and so on.  The power plant needs to make at least this much energy to break even.  A break-even powerplant has an EROEI of 1.  But such a plant would pointless, as there is no energy surplus to do the useful things we use energy for.

There is a minimum EROEI, greater than 1, that is required for an energy source to be able to run society.  An energy system must produce a surplus large enough to sustain things like food production, hospitals, and universities to train the engineers to build the plant, transport, construction, and all the elements of the civilization in which it is embedded.

For countries like the US and Germany, Weißbach et al. estimate this minimum viable EROEI to be about 7.  An energy source with lower EROEI cannot sustain a society at those levels of complexity, structured along similar lines.  If we are to transform our energy system, in particular to one without climate impacts, we need to pay close attention to the EROEI of the end result.

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Battery electric vehicles in Australia

Graham Palmer, author of the recent book “Energy in Australia: Peak oil, solar power and Asia’s economic growth” (reviewed on BNC here), has just done an excellent ABC radio presentation on Robyn William’s “Ockham’s Razor” show.  This is Robyn’s intro:

Robyn Williams: Now I wasn’t in the room at the time, but it is claimed that George W Bush once complained about the Arabs: “Why is our oil under their sand?” Well, whether he said it or not, the question has become even more stark as the Middle East gets even more fractious. Would you really want to depend much longer on secure oil supplies from the region? As for coal: As more and more coal mines close in Australia and disasters recur from China to Turkey, you’d have to ask whether that technology is also about to hit the ashcan of history. Perhaps, but not yet, says Graham Palmer in Melbourne. He’s an engineer and has done research in the field of energy futures. And by the way, bear in mind that PV stands for photovoltaic.

You can download the audio and read the transcript (with supporting references) here.

But there’s more! Graham has just written a new analysis on electric vehicles for BNC. On this topic we can find opinions ranging from “EVs are great because they’ll mop up daytime solar!” through to “EVs are great because you can charge them cheaply on overnight off peak!”. Confusion reigns…

The take-up of electric vehicles in Australia – rethinking the battery charging model

Graham Palmer, July 2014

Between 2007 and 2013, the global motor car fleet grew by 3.6% annually, reaching 1.1 billion [1], but during the same period, the annual growth of crude oil including total liquids averaged only 0.9% [2]. Driven by demand in China, but also Russia, India, and Brazil, the growth is projected to continue indefinitely [3], but given a crude oil price of around USD$100 bbl, we have already entered a prolonged period of inelastic supply, and regardless, capital investment in the oil supply industry has tripled in the past 10 years [4].

It is obvious that there simply isn’t the ready supply of conventional liquids to accommodate the growth of motorcars. Further, any discussion of the sustainability of motorcars should encompass a broader discussion of urban planning [5], public transport, and a re-examination of the travel task [6]. Comprehensive assessments of the life-cycle analysis of EVs shows that they can be better than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, but still a long way from “sustainable” [7,8]. But whether we like it or not, the egg has been scrambled, and motorcars will continue to be the primary mode of transport in Australia for the foreseeable future.

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Four Corners and its field of dreams

On Monday 7 July 2014, the usually hard-hitting investigative current affairs program “Four Corners” (Australian Broadcasting Commission) showed “Power to the People“. Here was the tagline:

While the rest of the world moves to embrace renewable energy why is Australia drawing back? Four Corners documents the revolution in power generation taking place across the globe.

The lead journalist, Stephen Long, also published a detailed opinion piece on it the next day, which you can read here. Going by the reaction on Twitter (search for the #4corners tag), the reception from most of the environmental community was rapturous.

So, fantastic! Apparently it’s already all over for coal bar the shouting in most countries (e.g., 4Corners focused on various developments in the US), and unless Australia embraces this “Third Industrial Revolution” (via Jeremy Rifkin), it risks ‘going the way of the dodo’. But…

Who noticed the internal contradictions? Claims of massively falling costs that was already making Australian coal uneconomic — whilst at the same time lamenting the upcoming disaster to investment if the mandatory renewable energy target and other subsides were withdrawn or cut back. Eh?

Below, Geoff Russell lifts up the rose-tinted sunglasses for a moment, and takes a more critical look at Long’s claims…

Four Corners and its field of dreams

Geoff Russell, July 2014

How would you feel about an advertisement for a cold remedy with a tag line: “Our remarkable new treatment will see your cold gone in just 4 weeks!”?

That’s about the size of a recent article by Giles Parkinson for The Guardian called … “Solar has won …”. It could also be a suitable paraphrase for an also recent ABC 4-Corners documentary on renewable energy: Power to the People by Stephen Long and Karen Michelmore.

The defining claim in the Parkinson piece is a CSIRO report claiming that by 2040 more than half of electricty may be generated and stored by “prosumers”.

Is this supposed to be impressive?

I’d suggest that same claim, if realised, is good evidence of the ineffectiveness of distributed renewable energy as a climate change response. By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. Germany’s renewable revolution has them planning on hitting the same target by about 2050.

As I said in the beginning, renewable energy is the cold remedy for people who want to feel better in a month … or two … while contributing a bucket load of money to their local chemist’s retirement fund.

On the other hand, Long and the 4-Corners crew seemed totally messmerised by fields of mirrors; or panels. They filmed them here, they filmed them there, it seems they’re springing up everwhere. I half expected an army of Kevin Costner clones to emerge from behind a heliostat holding a banner saying “Build it and they will come”. Well they’ve arrived and they’re travelling in a van with an ABC logo.

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Critique of the proposal for 100% renewable energy electricity supply in Australia

Below is a new, detailed critique by Dr Ted Trainer of the simulation studies by Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill on how eastern Australia might be run off 100% renewable energy. The summary:

Three recent papers by Elliston, Diesdendorf and MacGill (2012, 2013a, 2013b) elaborate on a proposal whereby it is claimed that 100% of present Australian electricity demand could be provided by renewable energy. The following notes add considerations arising from the last two papers to those discussed in my initial assessment of the first paper. My general view is that it would be technically possible to meet total Australian electricity demand from renewables but this would be very costly and probably unaffordable, mainly due to the amount of redundant plant needed to cope with intermittency. This draft analysis attempts to show why the cost conclusions EDM arrive at are probably much too low.

Ted has also updated his critique of the Zero Carbon Australia’s report on 100% renewable energy by 2020. The original BNC post is here, and the updated PDF here.

Ted notes the following:

These efforts have taken a huge amount  of time and I am still not clear and confident about my take, mainly because neither party will cooperate or correspond.  Thus I have not been able to deal with any misunderstandings etc. I have made.  Both critiques are strengthened by information I have come across since circulating previous commentaries, but they are essentially elaborations on the general line of argument taken in earlier attempts.

I find this unwillingness to engage on these criticisms by the primary authors disappointing, but typical.


I think these three papers are valuable contributions to the considerable advance that has occurred in the discussion of the potential of renewables in the last few years. My understanding of the situation is much improved on what it was three or four years ago and I now think some of my earlier conclusions were unsatisfactory. EDM take the appropriate general approach, which is to look at how renewable technologies might be combined at each point in time to meet demand, or more accurately, to estimate how much capacity of each technology would be required, especially to get through the times when solar and wind input is minimal. EDM put forward a potentially effective way of coping with the problem of gaps in their availability via biomass derived gas for use in gas turbines. My earlier analyses did not consider this.

It is not difficult for an approach of this kind to show that electricity demand can be met, and many impressive 100% renewable energy proposals have been published. (For critical analyses of about a dozen of these see Trainer, 2014), but a great deal of redundant capacity would be needed, and the key questions are, how much, and what would it cost? My present uncertain impression is that Australia might be able to afford to do it, but if it could it would be with significant difficulty, i.e., with major impacts on lifestyles, national systems and priorities, and on society in general.

A major disappointment with the EDM analyses is that for some crucial elements no data, evidence or derivations are given and as a result the proposal can only be taken as a statement of claims. We need to be able to work through the derivations in proposals such as this to see if they are sound or what questionable assumptions might have been made etc. Consequently I have had to spend a lot of time trying to guestimate my way to an assessment of the cost conclusions and it is not possible to confident about the results.

Required capacity?

A merit of the EDM approach is to take as the target the present demand. This avoids the uncertainty introduced when attempting to estimate both future demand and the reduction in demand that conservation effort etc. might make.

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