Lovelock’s dire vision

James Lovelock, the man who is often credited with being the first ‘Earth Systems Scientist’, has written a new book on the threat and consequences of climate change, called “The Vanishing Face of Gaia“. If you are looking for a dark and dystopian vision of the future, read Lovelock’s prognostications.

In brief, his view is that we have almost certainly gone past the point of no return. That is, climate ‘tipping elements‘ have been set in motion by past and ongoing changes to the Earth’s atmosphere and other interconnected systems (oceans, land surface, cryosphere). Because of this, according to Lovelock, we cannot now avoid a mass extinction of species and a major distruption to the human enterprise — though we may be able to execute a ‘sustainable retreat’ as a means of adapting to some of the challenges ahead and avoiding the very worst outcomes. As I understand it, his new book explores these ideas in some detail and evaluates the likelihood of success.

I have not yet read Lovelock’s new book (it’s now on my short-term list!), but I was certainly impressed by his previous treatise, The Revenge of Gaia, which included strong arguments for the use of nuclear power (even without describing the many benefits of Generation IV technology, epitomised by the IFR). On that topic, see also here, for an essay by Lovelock published in 2004 in The Independent: “Nuclear power is the only green solution“.

Lovelock’s views are considered by most in the scientific community to be at the extreme end of the optimism — pessimism scale, but certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility, and frankly, a near certainty if a ‘business-as-usual’ pathway of carbon emissions is kept up for another few decades. A good review of what a ‘1000 ppm’ world might look like can be found here and here. What many would dispute is whether we’re too far gone already. I personally think we still have time to avoid the worst, if we start emergency action now.

Anyway, to whet people’s appetite, below I reproduce an excellent review of the book by a friend and colleague of mine, Tim Flannery. It was published in The Monthly. Tim and I first met back in 2002 at a conference on extinctions in Japan, and have since published a few papers together. You can also click on the image of the book for another interesting perspective by Justin Ritchie.


Goodbye to All That

James Lovelock’s “The Vanishing Face of Gaia : A Final Warning

Review by Tim Flannery (Copehagen Climate Council)

The Monthly » June 2009, No. 46

James Lovelock’s latest book,The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (Allen Lane, 192pp; $29.95), has an important message. In a few years, or a few decades at most, abrupt changes in Earth’s climate will begin, which will end up killing almost all of us and cause the extinction of almost all life on Earth. The tropics and subtropics will be rendered uninhabitable by this shift, and the few survivors will cling to favoured regions such as Britain and New Zealand. Lovelock believes there is little we can do to avert our fate, for the causes of the climatic shift are now so entrenched that they are in all likelihood irreversible. In his view the best we can hope for is personal survival in a world of warring nations or, if we are particularly unfortunate, a world ruled by warlords.

Apocalyptic visions such as this are usually the province of doomsday cults or writers of science fiction. It’s unusual to find a scientist advancing one. Yet James Lovelock’s scientific credentials are impeccable. Over a long career he’s made many discoveries of global significance, including the fact that cold and flu viruses are transmitted by physical contact rather than through the air, and that small mammals such as hamsters can be frozen solid for hours or days, then defrosted and returned to life. As a maker of scientific instruments, he is without peer. One of his instruments used to measure air pollution is still in widespread use today; indeed it made detection of the hole in the ozone layer possible. Lovelock’s reputation as one of the world’s most respected scientists was reinforced in 2006, when he received the Royal Geological Society’s Wollaston medal. It’s the highest commendation given in geology, and its previous recipients include Louis Agassiz (the discoverer of the ice age) and Charles Darwin.

The Vanishing Face of Gaia is based upon decades of work in the field for which Lovelock received the Wollaston medal. Called Earth Systems Science or Gaia Theory, it concerns Earth’s methods of self-regulation. Lovelock himself founded the discipline in the ’70s, when he first published his Gaia hypothesis, and the alarming warning issued in his latest book is based upon his almost unparalleled grasp of the subject. Among the many regulatory systems that make Earth habitable is the one by which Earth maintains its temperature. At the heart of this system is a complex series of interactions which have carbon dioxide (CO2) at their core. In 2004, Lovelock realised that our disturbance of this system, by burning fossil fuels, had set us upon a deadly path, and every book he’s written since then has sounded a more strident warning.

Key to his latest warning is a simple computer model of a kind used by computer scientists principally to diagnose the behaviour of their larger models. Lovelock, however, used it for a different purpose:

[I] made an experiment with this model world to see what would happen if carbon dioxide were added as we are now doing to Earth. I found that as the carbon dioxide was added, at first the global temperature changed only slightly … But as the carbon dioxide abundance approached 400 ppm [parts per million] in the air, signs of instability [in the climate] appeared … Then suddenly, between 400 and 500 ppm of carbon dioxide, a small increase in heat or carbon dioxide causes a sudden 9 degree rise in temperature

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere today is 390 ppm. Before we started burning fossil fuels it was 280 ppm. But that is only part of the story. There are other greenhouse gases in the air, and if we sum up their capacity to warm Earth and express that in terms of CO2 equivalent (what is called CO2e), we find that we stand at 430 ppm CO2e – well into Lovelock’s danger zone. Here is the nub of Lovelock’s urgent warning.

There is one curious feature of Lovelock’s model world that bears further examination. Just before the deadly temperature spike occurs in his model world, a slight cooling – perhaps lasting only two or three years – takes place. “Do not be misled by lulls in climate change when global temperature is constant for a few years, or even, as I write here in the United Kingdom in 2008, appears to drop,” he warns, for such an event could well mark the beginning of the end. And if Lovelock is right, the beginning of the crisis is likely to come with the onset of a severe El Niño event, which spikes global temperatures. We are currently in a cool La Niña phase, but we are almost certain to experience another El Niño before 2013.

As Lovelock admits, his projections are at variance with those of most other climate scientists, not least the august Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose projections Lovelock argues do not accord “with high quality evidence from Earth obtained by scientists whose job it is to measure and observe“. In this he is right: a slew of recent scientific findings show that the key indicators of the climate system — including sea-level rise, temperature and CO2 concentration — are tracking the IPCC’s worst-case scenario, which they considered a remote possibility. While Lovelock’s model does fit recent observations, it’s difficult to know what to make of this, for his model predicts only minor perturbations in the climate system before the arrival of the big catastrophe.

While Lovelock’s science is of the highest calibre, his views on society and what we should do about the climate crisis are worth little more than anyone else’s. He argues that wind power is next to useless, that our only hope lies in nuclear power, and that urban-green philosophies are dangerous. His vision of how humanity will respond to the climate catastrophe is just one of many. Musing on this bleak book, I realised that in Lovelock’s view our last chance to avoid catastrophe occurred during the reigns of Howard, Bush and Cheney. It was their backers — companies such as ExxonMobil and many Australian miners, who argued forcefully (and continue to argue) that they should be allowed to go on with ‘business as usual’ – who must bear the brunt of the blame. What a fate it would be to be drawn back into that hateful Bush-Howard world of conflict and avarice by a hand reaching out from the political grave.

James Lovelock is now 90 years old and looking forward to his first visit to space, courtesy of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic launcher. He hopes to see with his own eyes the thing he described as Gaia: to marvel at its spherical shape and its soon-to-be-changed greens and blues. This remarkable man is described by his peers as “completely open and honest, almost to the point of naivety“, and he certainly pulls no punches in his latest work. Most of us will discover first-hand whether his understanding of the way our Earth works is correct or not.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

46 replies on “Lovelock’s dire vision”

A recent RealClimate article included a photo, taken from space, of Saharan sand blowing out over the Atlantic. I didn’t see an estimate of the tonnage that was suspended but would guess it on the order of a billion tonnes.

That is also the amount of alkaline earth silicate that, similarly suspended, would deal with a week’s anthropogenic CO2 dumping. If Lovelock is right, we still don’t have to have a Mad Max movie, don’t have to have a Mad Nanook of the North movie. Rather, if we care to, we can build several-hundred-gigawatt nuclear stations whose power would not be exported, but rather used to pulverize cubic miles of the alkaline earth silicate terrain that they are built on and, by streaming it up into the sky at, IIRC, 280 m/s, lay it onto suitable trade winds like those in the pictures of the (more-or-less) natural dust plume.

The cost of this large-scale central launching of CCS dustmotes would probably be less than what governments are making on the fuels whose ash the motes would clean up.

(How fire can be domesticated)


Minor clarification. The dustmotes need not do all their work —

Mg2SiO4 + 2 CO2 → 2 MgCO3 + SiO2

while still suspended in air. Their natural weathering time is on the order of one to four years. The years they spend lying on the ground, or shallowly buried in it, after landing, after being thrown high enough that the wind distributes them over millions of km^2, are the years in which this would happen.

This second reaction probably also goes most of the way to the right,

2 MgCO3 + 2 CO2 + 2 H2O → 2 Mg(HCO3)2(marine)

and is the basis for a similar proposal involving CaCO3, but the first one definitely happens. It pulls CO2 out of thin air and increases entropy by doing so.

(How fire can be domesticated)


I don’t know if Lovelock has factored in oil depletion. Some predict a 30% decline in the period 2008-2015. Not only does that remove a CO2 source but it is likely to drag coal down with it. Reduced transport capability will affect both supply and demand for coal based sectors. Using coal to make liquid fuel as per Sasol in South Africa is unlikely to scale up in time. Even at 2007 usage rates coal was expected to peak globally by 2030 then undergo a slow decline.

This scenario has not been envisaged by IPCC and it would be interesting to use it in more powerful climate models. If true it may stabilise warming, the flip side being the end of economic growth as we know it.


I should start by saying I think that even without emissions reduction policies, there would be essentially zero prospect of a multi-degree temperature rise by the end of the century, because of the geoengineering option. The human race could get a big aerosol-cooling program going within a few years of deciding to do so, and I think the trajectory of nanotechnology is such as to ensure that cheap air capture in bulk will be an option well within a few decades. (More details here.)

Now, irrespective of all that… isn’t it a bit foolish of Flannery to simply pass on this view of Lovelock’s without trying to put it in context? So, Lovelock has a computer model which not only predicts warming, but predicts a tipping point in the range 400-500 ppm followed by a 9-degree rise. Could he tell us whether anyone else in the field thinks this particular model is worth paying attention to? Or even what the tipping-point mechanism is? Or how long this 9-degree rise is supposed to take? This sounds like the New York Times reporting on Freeman Dyson’s views about climate, or New Scientist reporting on the theory-of-everything-of-the-month – an extreme and ill-founded view being passed to a lay audience, without any indication that that’s what it is.


1. For the significance of 400-500 ppm (considered but whose implications are not not understood by economists and politicians), reference is made to Zachos et al. 2008, defining the onset of the Antarctic ice sheet to below 500 ppm.
“An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. NATURE|Vol 451|17 January 2008|doi:10.1038/nature06588
“If fossil-fuel emissions continue unabated, in less than 300 years pCO2
will reach about 1,800 p.p.m.v., a level not present on Earth for roughly
50 million years. Both the magnitude and the rate of rise complicate the
goal of accurately forecasting how the climate will respond. Foremost
among the challenges that must be overcome to achieve this goal is the
development of a deeper understanding of the complex interactions that
link the climate system with the biogeochemical cycles, specifically the
role of positive and negative feedbacks. The occurrence of past greenhouse
warming events provides one opportunity to test theory about the
physical and biogeochemical interactions in rapidly shifting systems.
There are of course limitations on which facets of theory and models
can be tested given uncertainties in proxies and the limited spatial and
temporal resolution of palaeorecords. Nevertheless, the past greenhouse
events provide glimpses of the future. Until the most salient features of
these events, for example the global patterns of carbonate deposition or
the extreme polar warmth, can be replicated with dynamical models,
forecasts of climate beyond the next century (that is, under extreme
greenhouse gas levels) should be viewed with caution, and efforts to
comprehend the underlying physics and biogeochemistry of the coupling
between climate and the carbon cycle should be hastened.”

2. For the likelihood of tipping points reference is made to: Dakos et al., 2008. “Slowing down as an early warning signal for abrupt climate change” by 14308–14312  PNAS  September 23, 2008  vol. 105  no. 38 http://www.pnas.orgcgidoi10.1073pnas.0802430105
“In the Earth’s history, periods of relatively stable climate have often been interrupted by sharp transitions to a contrasting state. One explanation for such events of abrupt change is that they happened when the earth system reached a critical tipping point. However, this remains hard to prove for events in the remote past, and it is even more difficult to predict if and when we might reach a tipping point for abrupt climate change in the future. Here, we analyze eight ancient abrupt climate shifts and show that they were all preceded by a characteristic slowing down of the fluctuations starting well before the actual shift. Such slowing down, measured as increased autocorrelation, can be mathematically shown to be a hallmark of tipping points. Therefore, our results imply independent empirical evidence for the idea that past abrupt shifts were associated with the passing of critical thresholds. Because the mechanism causing slowing down is fundamentally
inherent to tipping points, it follows that our way to detect slowing down might be used as a universal early warning signal for upcoming catastrophic change. Because tipping points in ecosystems and other complex systems are notoriously hard to predict in other ways, this is a promising perspective.”


More Lovelock here:

Lovelock kept his message simple: There’s nothing we can do now but adapt and survive. He even confided that he wanted the subtitle of his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, to read “Enjoy It While It Lasts.”

His publisher, perhaps figuring that hopeful people are more likely to purchase books, objected.


Yes, let’s remember Thoreau’s advice to simplify, simplify.

Lovelock will be ashes soon, sounds like a death threat to me…

He is way beyond reason and sanity here. Come back in 100 years and let us know if your “model” is right.


Barry, I all but said the same to you early this year, shrugged my shoulders and mumbled something about seeing it as an opportunity. The more enlightened of us could make money by selling houses on the coast to Ian Plimer and his ilk (just as an example. What about buying undervalued land in Greenland and north Canada?). I note rather sadly that I did not get a mention in your article above. Ah well, I suppose I should have written a book about it…


“The more enlightened of us could make money by selling houses on the coast…” Ha ha ha, where is it, Great Ocean Road I hope. I’ll make you an offer (cheap) and I have absolutely no doubt I’ll still be sitting on the porch enjoying the scenery in 40 years time unless the claret gets me first. I certainly won’t be bobbing about in the sea.


Just noticed the reference to ‘north Canada’ (must be the claret), hey, have I got a deal for you. Ever been to Rankin Inlet, I have and strongly recommend the fishing in the bay, rivers and lakes. They do a nice line in ‘seal heart sushi’ too. Let’s swap your beach front property in Oz for an inland hummock near Rankin. You’ll love it… It’s mid summer and the max temps are a pleasant 8C or so – check out the local weather, you’ll certainly escape the great IPCC immolation based on those forecasts. We could do a deal on a nice spot in Antarctica too – no wait, sorry, Steig says it’s getting a bit toasty there too.

P.S. The 40 years was a bit optimistic as I’d be hitting the Guinness book of records if I made it, still, this is a ‘climate change’ blog so the truth is relative and my grand children and their descendents can enjoy the place for centuries if they choose.


Moron! It doesn’t matter what you believe! Where is your peer reviewed research? Unfortunately we will all suffer from catastrophic climate change not just the head in the sand denialists like you. Do yourself (and the rest of us) a favour and spend some time on this blog reading the science before you post inanities like the above comments.


“Where is your peer reviewed research?” ha ha ha ha – just because your silly little warmer community has a funny handshake and special botty touching club rules don’t think the rest of the great un-washed gives a rat’s arse about your forelock tugging ‘peer review’. Cuddle up to it if it makes your juices flow and keeps the scary monsters under the bed, but using it as a debating point outside your diminishing group hug is just wasting bits and bytes. Oh and say g’day to Alice when you get home.


Wow, that was really insightful! This site is for intelligent people who are searching for answers to a complex problem. Your last remarks show you don’t qualify so I suggest you go elsewhere.
Barry -here is another prime candidate for disemvowelling!


“This site is for intelligent people who are searching for answers to a complex problem…” Pompous self-aggrandising twit. “…here is another prime candidate for disemvowelling.” Me thinks Barry rises above the hubristic schmoosing of fawning lickspittles like perps. I can hear him running down the hall “BARRY, BARRY, Baaaaaaaarrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, PeterW is being “insightful” AND HE IS A DENIALIST, Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarreeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…” But, then again, perp is intelligent – just ask him he’ll tell you – actually he’ll tell you without asking, he can’t help it…


Digging yourself deeper into the “moron” hole Pete! BTW another of your preconceived biases is on show. How do you know I’m not a “she”? I notice other people on the site have chosewn to ignore you – smart thinking people. From here on in so shall I!


About time Lovelock rushed out another another ‘best seller’… The pronouns he, him, and his have been used traditionally as generic or gender-neutral singular pronouns you are a ‘he’, however perhaps ‘shim’ is more appropriate in your case… By the way Perps, you’re the catastrophist who jumped in ‘half cocked’ with the ‘moron’ comment… “Moron” incidentally, is a city in Argentina to the west of Buenos Aires.



You’re a bit late on buying land in Canada. Apparently people from the US have been doing this for the past few years wrt to escaping the consequences of AGW.


It looks as if what some correspondents may refer to as “your silly little warmer community” contains the worlds major climate research organizations (Hadley, NASA, Tindall, Potsdam, Colorado, NSIDC, CSIRO etc.), whose reports, based on peer reviewed papers by thousands of active scientists, all point in the same direction.

Not everyone accepts the scientific method … preferring to use colorful language rather than attempt to understand the scientific facts or, in the very least, travel to climate change-devastated areas around Australia and overseas.


Lovelock’s objections to wind energy seem to be based on “visual pollution” strange attitude if one accepts that the world as we know it is in imminent danger of a runaway greenhouse effect.

On subject of wind energy; EEA reports that wind power could supply all of Europe’s energy needs. Gives values X10 higher(20W/m^2) than what David MacKay estimated, based on actual wind velocities at 80-120 meters.


Lovelock, who has been quite clear on the subject, objects to wind, if “objects” is the right word here, because it can’t stem climate change, only nuclear can do that. This is what has swung Jim Hansen as well: large, baseload nuclear (large in ‘amounts’ not necessarily size) non-carbon generation. Wind can’t do it. He may be wrong, but that is his motivation, Neil.



This is what has swung Jim Hansen as well: large, baseload nuclear (large in ‘amounts’ not necessarily size) non-carbon generation. Wind can’t do it.

Right. Wind turbines look kind of cute in magazine pictures, not so much to their neighbours, and they look positively ugly once you understand they are a promotional tool for the natural gas interests. Remember Ghislenghien.


Neil said “Gives values X10 higher (20W/m^2) than what David MacKay estimated, based on actual wind velocities at 80-120 meters.” but this is not true. The report assumes that five 2-MW machines would be placed in each square km, which means that the *peak* power would be at most 10 MW per sq km. If you want to compare with David MacKay’s numbers, then you need to know the *average* power per unit area in the study. The report doesn’t explicitly say what the average load factor is, but if it is 0.23 (typical for Europe), then the average power per unit area is 2.3 W/m2. Not very different from MacKay’s rough figure of 2 W/m2!


David MacKay – “If you want to compare with David MacKay’s numbers, then you need to know the *average* power per unit area in the study. The report doesn’t explicitly say what the average load factor is, but if it is 0.23 (typical for Europe), then the average power per unit area is 2.3 W/m2. Not very different from MacKay’s rough figure of 2 W/m2!”

Except that wind turbines are not placed in areas with average wind potential except in Germany where overly generous feed-in tariffs have led to turbines in less than ideal areas.

Siting a wind farm is a complicated task and many factors are taken into account. Most important is the Weibull distribution graph that shows the frequency of higher winds in an area. This overcomes the average wind speed fallacy that MacKay falls into.

The capacity factor you refer is the one often cited from German experience with less than ideal conditions and siting. Wind farm capacity factors with modern turbines with better gust utilisation and ride through capability is rarely under 30% and goes up to 47% just north of me here in Geraldton.

You can only really work out the actual power output of a wind turbine by using a representitive weibull distribution and then matching this in a model with the selected turbine’s power graph.

This link will give you a better idea of how wind works and is a very useful reference.


David MacKay,
You are correct, I miss-read the wind energy map, and the assumptions that the maximum density of turbines would be 5 x2MW units/km^2(10MW/km^2 maximum).I should have read the article more carefully before commenting. About 5% of the on-shore area is stated to have >3000 h/year at this maximum value so,>3MW/km^2. However considerable off-shore regions have >35GWh/km or 4MW average/km^2 and the conclusion of the study is that all of Europe’s energy needs could be supplied by wind energy, subject to specific land and off-shore use exclusions.
This study misses the 1% of land area that has considerably higher wind velocities where >>10MW of turbine capacity would be sited/km^2. For the UK relevant regions are Scotland’s higher elevations and off-shore islands( Shetlands, Orkney’s and Hebrides). I think in time these more remote regions and off-shore will be providing most of the wind energy once grid connects are built. The UK seems to have a large part of this on-shore very high potential.



Thanks for the link to the European Environment Agency’s Report on wind potential. I read it yesterday and spoke to David MacKay this morning. It so happened that he, too, had been reading it.

Your assertion of the mismatch between MacKay and the Report with respect to energy density/sq km is invalid. The figures have been presented differently. The former are net and the latter gross. In fact, they are in remarkable agreement.

It is true that the Report suggests that the UK has the potential to produce economic power from onshore and shallow offshore wind to the tune of about 160 kWh/person/day (MacKay’s figure being 36). MacKay, however, based his figures on the maximum land and sea area that he thought was plausible to cover in wind farms rather than possible. In other words, to achieve the 160 kWh/day figure, we would have to cover a greater area with windfarms, given the agreemrent over energy density/sq km (40-45% of UK land area to be more precise).

You might also noticed from the Report that the very windy areas in the Scottish Highlands have far less potential than you had supposed and which yo accused MacKay of underestimating.


This is the quote from Lovelock in the Guardian:
” The Germans who have invested more than anyone in this form of energy are finding, according to newspaper Der Spiegel, that despite more than 17,000 wind turbines across Germany the nation is now emitting more CO2 than before it built them.

Why? Because the turbines are only 17% efficient, the wind does not blow at the right speed often enough for them to do better than this.

As a result 83% of the electricity that should have come from wind has to be made in coal-burning power stations that can never work at optimum efficiency because they are forever adjusting to the fluctuating flow from wind generation. Even with the huge attraction of the subsidy, energy companies are increasingly abandoning wind as an effective and green source of energy.

Apart from the errors in fact that capacity factor is NOT efficiency, and that most turbines have a >30% capacity factor, energy companies are NOT abandoning wind energy but have increased investments X200% since this article was written.

I find it amazing that a scientist concerned with deceasing CO2 emissions would not support any low carbon energy.

It would be like saying: “nuclear energy only converts 30% of the energy released into electricity and as a consequence coal and gas are producing 70% of the electricity and forever adjusting to the fluctuating demand for electricity! ” I think most would correctly deride such a statement, as we should also do for Lovelock’s statement quoted above.


but his fundamental point is correct: these new wind turbines have not stemmed Germany’s increase in CO2. In fact, when Germany enacted it’s nuclear phase out law, the plan was to increase natural gas generation a lot. Thus, the former Chancellor went to work for Gasprom right after he signed the phase out into law.

2 years ago, the Green/SPD gov’t planned to build over 20 new coal plants to make up for the shortfall envisioned by closing down the biggest source of carbon-free energy there: nuclear. They scaled it back after a huge protest to 8 new coal plants.

Lovelock is, then, basically correct: wind and renewables can’t do it. The focus needs to remain in *non-carbon* not renewables, which are essentially irrelevant to the issue at hand, climate change.



David Walters – “but his fundamental point is correct: these new wind turbines have not stemmed Germany’s increase in CO2. In fact, when Germany enacted it’s nuclear phase out law, the plan was to increase natural gas generation a lot. Thus, the former Chancellor went to work for Gasprom right after he signed the phase out into law.”

On of the reasons that wind turbines can’t displace more emissions in CO2 is that energy source like thermal coal and nuclear are non-despatchable. ie: they cannot reduce or increase their output quickly enough to allow for more wind penetration therefore the wind energy is dumped or exported.

Spain is much better as it has more intermediate and peaking options to allow when it is windy to allow wind to generate at one time 43% of Spain’s energy demand.

The problem lies not with wind but the grid system that allows baseload to generate flat out and gives preference to allow baseload not to have to change.

“Lovelock is, then, basically correct: wind and renewables can’t do it. The focus needs to remain in *non-carbon* not renewables, which are essentially irrelevant to the issue at hand, climate change.”

No he isn’t even close to correct as nuclear cannot do it either as its needs almost as much peaking power as wind to function. Even France with some reactors load following still imports peaking power.

Germany would still need Russian gas, or Swedish pumped hydro, even if it was all nuclear.


What response time does a power source need in order to be considered despatchable? What response time relegates a power source to baseload only? What are the response times for a typical coal plant, wind or solar installation, LWR, IFR, hydro, etc.?

If we’re going to talk about this, I’d like to see some numbers (not adjectives, to quote MacKay).


John D Morgan – “What response time does a power source need in order to be considered despatchable?”

I would have thought to participate in a discussion on energy perhaps it would have been a good idea to know these terms.

Here is a start:

Again if you are to assess the merits of various power sources it would be good to know this before you decide what different one can and can’t do.


I agree that the focus has to be on low carbon not just renewables.
Lovelock is, then, basically correct: wind and renewables can’t do it.
Do you mean that renewables did not replace nuclear and the increased energy demand of Germany in the last what 7-8 years?

That’s hardly a proof that renewables cannot replace most of the worlds oil and coal over the next 40 years, especially if located in regions having the most favorable wind or solar energy. Germany doesn’t seem to well endowed with either of these but the North sea and N Africa both within easy HVDC access are some of the best locations.
The US and Australia have both, India good solar but China will probably need nuclear for most of it’s energy in the long run.


To my knowledge wind replaced hardly anything. Wind and solar when the run, displace no nuclear, of course, but it does displace some coal and gas.

What we are beginning to realize in the US, as has been true in Europe, is that wind and solar are huge booms for natural gas. Germany hasn’t replaced any natural gas, only expanded it usage (and coal).

Putting your statement another way, renewables can’t displace the world oil and coal over the next 40 years (although we’d want to discuss transport fuel in another thread) and I doubt there is any evidence to show it can.



My first paragraph above is mangled. When wind and solar run for their average 8 hours a day the amount of coal burned and natural gas in conventional thermal units does go down. But they don’t ‘turn off’ and have to be ready to run if the wind drops off or it’s particularly cloudy. They simply don’t produce reliable baseload power that could actually be counted on to *close a coal plant*.

Nuclear, obviously, can do this. This is why Germany as such an illconcived energy plan: they actually want to close carbon-free nuclear…30% of their power, and try to replace it with wind. This is will not work. Of course the reality is that the nuclear plants will not be phased out *except* if they continue to build gas turbines. There is a reason the gas industry internationally has no problem at all with wind and solar: it’s money in the bank for them.



David Walters – “They simply don’t produce reliable baseload power that could actually be counted on to *close a coal plant*.”

Well not according to the peer reviewed literature. Mark Diesendorf did extensive modelling on this and published it. The conclusions where:

“Computer simulations and modelling show that the integration of wind power into an electricity grid changes the optimal mix of conventional base-load and peak-load power stations. Wind power replaces base-load with the same annual average power output. However, to maintain the
reliability of the generating system at the same level as before the substitution, some additional peak-load plant may be needed. This back-up does not have to have the same capacity as the group of wind farms. For widely dispersed wind farms, the back-up capacity only has to be one fifth
to one-third of the wind capacity. In the special case when all the wind power is concentrated at a single site, the required back-up is about half the wind capacity. (Martin &
Diesendorf 1982; Grubb 1988a & b; ILEX 2002; Carbon Trust & DTI 2004; Dale et al. 2004;
UKERC 2006).”

Now if you can’t produce peer reviewed literature to prove your premise that wind cannot displace baseload then I assume your statement is just perpetuating the myth that renewables can’t “do baseload like coal” and you are flying in the face of work that has been published.

Furthermore you seem to misunderstanding the terms baseload. Certain types of nuclear reactors can do intermediate and even peaking (LFTR) power however baseload refers to the type of power station not a type of power. Baseload power stations are termed this because they change their output in times less than hours therefore they are only good for running flat out.


Stephen, I think you method is a little bit off.

Peer review papers are rarely written in engineering to prove something that doesn’t exist can’t exist. It’s perfectly appropriate to suppose and put forward a thesis that something could exist or, in fact does exist.

Of course there are peer review papers on renewable ‘baseload’. that is because there really isn’t any yet but there are theories and suppositions that society could move toward this.That is fair. Much of the “review”, of course, contradicts this but that is all part of the discussion.

What I do know is that European system operators really want nothing to do with this, and they don’t believe it’s really possible beyond 30% of a grid’s capacity. Especially in Germany, as it happens. Which is why there are no plans being implemented to do this. What is being planned are more coal plants and gas plants. Perhaps they are unnecessary, I sure hope so.

Baseload is not on demand power. Don’t confuse the two things. I’ve worked with grid operations in California for 25 years. Because they have separate entries in Wiki doesn’t mean they are equal. In theory, all “on demand power” is base load power (because you are demanding it be baseloaded) but not all base load is on demand power. You can run, for example, simple-cycle peaker units in “baseload mode”. We did this for weeks back during the 2001 energy crisis.

Coal plants do change load and in fact most do. Where do you get they cannot? That many can’t change load on demand fast is simply a function of firing controls and condenser bypass and other purely *political* decisions on how the contract the building and dispatching of the plant. The same is acually true of nuclear. All new EPRs for example can change load nicely. And in fact they will in France, where all their plants can do load changing based on extra-long control rods, plant rotation for load changing, etc.

Baseload, wiki notwithstanding, is the base *minimum* 24/7 365 power supply to a grid. Sometimes it can include what is called “intermediate” load, that is the bulk of the loading through the early afternoon but not peak load it self. “Peak load” is simply the arbitrary point at the top of the scale for any particular day and in the summer requires extra input.

California’s baseload is 21,000 MW (for ISO jurisdiction, about 25,000 for all load). This cannot be handled by wind or solar without a huge overbuild and back up. It would simply be too expensive and, thank god, no policy makers, no matter how “Green” are proposing this.

Nuclear can easily handle more than the 4400 MWs of this number it provides now by building another 10 plants or thereabouts. That is 100% of the baseload demand plus room for growth, which is also a big bugaboo for renewables since they usually assume a huge conservation and efficiency program along with wind and solar.

Germany, computer models notwithstanding, would have to spend ridiculous amounts of overbuilding of wind (solar is seriously way to expensive in this northern, and cloudy latitude) to provide serious base load, let along on demand intermediate load changing. It is simply unnecessary.



Australia’s current abundance of natural and coal seam gas may be fragile once the gas boom gets underway. Firstly compressed natural gas is likely to be the fuel of choice for buses and trucks as diesel becomes very expensive. Add huge overseas demand for LNG imports and ammonia based fertiliser. Then if the RET works as expected there should be a flurry of wind farm building. Additionally it seems each desal plant to be built in coastal cities will claim to ‘offset’ their grid electrical input with wind power.

To do this I suspect for every 1000MW of new wind nameplate some 500 MW or more of combined cycle gas will be built (example). Perhaps that will somehow be counted in the number of Mwh’s that go towards the RET. After 20 years or so of this Australia’s natural gas won’t seem so abundant.

I think the correct approach is to regulate gas balancing of intermittent sources to say 1 Mwh of gas fired to every 4 Mwh of wind and solar. In other words keep gas fired generation to a minimum to conserve the resource. At the same time announce a phaseout schedule of coal fired baseload plants to be replaced by current nuclear technology. This won’t happen of course. Instead we will get another decade of dithering and denial.


David Walters – “Stephen, I think you method is a little bit off.
Peer review papers are rarely written in engineering to prove something that doesn’t exist can’t exist. It’s perfectly appropriate to suppose and put forward a thesis that something could exist or, in fact does exist.”

However scientific research is and this is what I point to – should I not?

“What I do know is that European system operators really want nothing to do with this, and they don’t believe it’s really possible beyond 30% of a grid’s capacity.”

Thats good David however you did not supply a reference – is there one to support this statement?

“Coal plants do change load and in fact most do. Where do you get they cannot? ”

Never said they couldn’t. Load following is different to peaking power. Thermal power plants have more thermal intertia and cannot change fast enough to be considered peaking. Intermediate plants that include load following thermal power plants can change for morning and afternoon peaks and troughs of course however they cannot respond to fast transients which is why there are always peaking plants in the mix to keep the grid stable.

“California’s baseload is 21,000 MW (for ISO jurisdiction, about 25,000 for all load). This cannot be handled by wind or solar without a huge overbuild and back up. It would simply be too expensive and, thank god, no policy makers, no matter how “Green” are proposing this.”

Why not? The true value of renewables comes with dispersion and different power assets working together and does not have to more expensive than nuclear. How do you know it would be too expensive and why would California expect to do it all alone. Wind from the Great Plains can make up for shortfalls as your solar plants , when they get built will be ‘backing up’ the midwest. Your grid, like ours, is just about shot and needs major upgrades just to keep going whether renewables are in the mix or not. Money spent on HVDC lines and grid upgrading will benefit all not just renewables. As you country seems so aware of terrorism the dispersed and upgraded renewable grid will be much harder to take down than huge central power stations.

“Nuclear can easily handle more than the 4400 MWs of this number it provides now by building another 10 plants or thereabouts. That is 100% of the baseload demand plus room for growth, which is also a big bugaboo for renewables since they usually assume a huge conservation and efficiency program along with wind and solar.”

10 plants at 8 to 10 billion dollars each is 80 or 100 billion dollars and 10 to 15 years away – for a state that is almost broke that is a lot of money. Even if you were to go nuclear a huge conservation and efficiency program will save you building nuclear plants. Generally it is far cheaper to not need the power than to build a plant so EC&E is good for all types of power. The Europeans do just as much technology as California with a lot less energy even though you lead the rest of the USA in energy efficiency.


Stephen, you are confusing different concepts and why they build peakers at all. There is a general thermal/hydro capacity of different kinds but all can change very quickly. Mostly this has to do with the age of the plant in general, but the ability of the firing controls. 10MW to 20MWs a minute is easy to accomplish and in fact, if “look around”, you may be able to find references to this on the internet. I know it from personal experience as a control room operator. And…this also includes combined cycle “peaker” units that are often run as ‘base load’ units when gas prices are cheap (like now) and vary load quite quickly.

Peakers are not a “quick…we just lost 2000 MWs of power…turn on the peakers!”…only. They are used for this. But a thermal unit (and any hydro unit) with good firing controls can goes from minimum to maximum in almost the same time it takes a large peaker unit to come on line and hit full load 10 to 20 minutes. Peakers are usually approved to reach an actual *scheduled* peak that hits about, say, 10% of the time year round, about 30 to 40% of the time during the summer when load simply goes over regional baseload/load-changing capacity: that is, when all the baseload RMR units are running, balls to the wall, as we say. THEN the peakers get turned on.

What gas turbines have is the ability to go from cold iron to minimum/maximum load very quickly, true, but they are only necessary during those odd days we lose generation here and there and those summer peaks. Othewise the rate at which we go from, say, morning rush hour loading to our two peak times every single day, that *rate* is almost the same, you don’t always need the peaker to handle it.

This is my experience working under ISO jurisdiction California. I’m sure there are tons of variables to this around the world.

All renewable projects are built on a state-per-state basis. Thus California’s wind farms and solar plants, even though they are built with federal funds, have to fit into the state plan or they don’t get built.

At any rate, the point is that such *massive* HVDC/SG tech, expensive as it is, and while some if should be built, is not needed to be hooked up to wind or solar or ‘dispersed’ forms because it’s too expensive. You still have to overbuild tremendously. It’s that nasty little 20% capacity for solar and 30 (or whatever) capacity for wind that raises the costs. I don’t think the rate payers are into paying for this ‘national plan’. And, there really isn’t one, right now it’s mandated wind farms for the most part, paid for by Federal Production Tax Credits.

On the peer review thing…I’m not blaming you for using the peer reviewed papers…that is in advance of some, who site “RMI” as an objective source. You don’t, and I thank you for that. I don’t cite papers because it’s more in terms of conferences I’ve attended, knowing dispatchers and ISO staff (including European ones). There really are very few (I’m saying “few” because I don’t read everything) plans that are actually going to see wind or solar as baseload. Papers yes, plans no. But, for fun, see: Shows the levelized costs of all energy sources, based, however, on EIA/DoD data. The Chinese will be bringing in their plants for under 2 billion a piece, for more than 1GW each. Think we can learn a thing or two from them?

On California, again…first, the “State” is not going to pay for nuclear plants and no state does. In fact, even wind farms are built by utilities totally, just like nuclear plants. In my state, it’s totally a political, not technical problem. Nuclear will be surrounding the state, probably Utah and Nevada, and no new ones. The 4400 MWs are what we produce NOW instead of using imported coal power or gas plants. Thank god for those 4 reactors. It makes sense to build another 8 to 12. But the real result will be, *because of the renewable plans* California will continue to build more and more gas fired peaker and combined cycle plants.

BTW…efficiency and conservation and NOT plant building is why the State was screwed almost 10 years ago. It followed the Lovin’s nonsense and *achieved* a spectacular efficiency and conservation program. But none, no one, of the planners who listened to him accounted for *growth*. This is efficiency (which can’t actually be mandated despite wishful thinking) and conservation’s weakest points. We actually need MORE power in this state, and, as global warming starts to heat up, more air conditioning for both commercial and industrial as well as residential. We will be sending buko bucks out of state to convert even more electrons in air conditioning, efficiency or no conservation notwithstanding.



I forgot to add: Barry’s IFR’s (not his but he is a big proponent of them) and our LFTR/MSR advocacy, can handle any load and are totally scalable (I don’t know if the IFRs are scalable) and can handle any load-changing. So we are working on getting the NRC regs changed for smaller, faster nuclear units, ones that should be LOT cheaper to build.

We are working on all the regs to make it NOT “10” years to build a nuclear plant (actually from shovel to going COD) I believe the average now is 4 to 6 years and has been dropping.



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