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Open Thread 26

Time for a new open thread, since apparently the previous one is now loading a little slowly… I’ll close the old one to comments, so please continue discussion here.

As for the quiescence of BNC over the past few months, well, I’ve been travelling — what can I say? But I have a new post to put up tomorrow, and a few others in train.

The Open Thread is a general discussion forum, where you can talk about whatever you like — there is nothing ‘off topic’ here — within reason. So get up on your soap box! The standard commenting rules of courtesy apply, and at the very least your chat should relate to the general content of this blog.

The sort of things that belong on this thread include general enquiries, soapbox philosophy, meandering trains of argument that move dynamically from one point of contention to another, and so on — as long as the comments adhere to the broad BNC themes of sustainable energy, climate change mitigation and policy, energy security, climate impacts, etc.

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.

786 replies on “Open Thread 26”

In the spirit of your analogy – we need to stop the bleeding before we apply the bandage.

Somehow we have to stop all extraction of fossil fuels before they end up in the greenhouse. It might just be possible to supply every user globally with noncarbon electricity and recycled synthene, cheaper. It would have to be globally cheaper (to be palatable to every economy) soon if we are to achieve global zeroisation of emissions by 2100.

Yes, that would require an awful lot of R&D, but then there are an awful lot of billions being tossed around.

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Non-regular visitors to this site may be puzzled by the suggestion above that cheap synthetic fuel could be distributed around the world and still achieve “net zero emissions” by 2100. That makes sense if the raw material for the fuel comes from the air, so that its subsequent emission amounts to a net zero.

The idea is that CO2 be harvested from the atmosphere and converted back into hydrocarbons using non-carbon energy. It already can be done at ballpark cost, explained in a nearby thread. However, it must be cheaper still, cheaper than locally extracted and refined fuel in places like Nigeria and Syria, to suppress black (if universally banned) trade in fossil oil.

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There are two separate reasons for harvesting carbon from air and sea. Processes available are either biological via photosynthesis, etc, or industrial, as mentioned by John Morgan in the post linked by Roger in his recent comment.

Re-use of harvested carbon via either process results in close to zero nett CO2 emissions, but not reduction of atmospheric CO2 levels.

Whether we like it or not, industrialised nations have an ethical responsibility to harvest and sequester CO2 that they released during the past 200 years or so. That amount can be subject to treaty, counted and monitored, but can it be enforced? I guess not.

Ideally, fossil carbon will become more expensive than either biological or industrially harvested carbon from air and ocean, but that alone will not drive sequestration.

The alternatives include olivine reaction to bind CO2 and geo-engineering generally. By definition, those without money cannot pay. Like it or not, for the world to continue indefinitely in a recognisable form, the rich guys with money will need to do their bit to make it possible.

A rational definition of “the rich guys” includes every reader of this blog. That’s scary.

What’s the Mafia’s approach? “Pay up or the kids get it.”

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It’s good to have a space to discuss what technologies may be technically feasible. But these discussions sometimes take place as if we have all the time in the world to transition the entire world’s infrastructure. For my part I think the time factor has become the most crucial element of all.

It can be argued you have to start somewhere and that thought is certainly valid. But I think we have to accept another train of thought – that it is likely too late to undertake such a universal transition. What does a triage doctor do in such circumstances?

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We bleach the sky white. Dumping sulphur particles or other less reactive particles in the upper atmosphere is the cheapest way to buy more time. It’s not ideal, and may have some nasty side effects at the expense of the poor. But the solar shield is what many geoengineering types are examining precisely because it is so incredibly cheap.

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Twice EN has advocated bleaching the sky white. Neither time with citation.

From this site’s Comments Policy:
“…Do not… offer as fact what are simply opinions about complex matters… To avoid this provide scientific data, links, references, etc. to support your arguments.”

There is a list of unknowns attached to “bleaching the sky white” as long as the metaphorical arm.

For example, possible shutdown of the SE Asian monsoons. Or overcooling of the equatorial regions and failure to cool the melting ice of the Arctic and Antarctic and consequent sea level rise.

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Prof David Keith
“Keith has previously used computer modeling to explore the possibility of using other materials that may have a neutral impact on ozone, including diamond dust and alumina. Late last year, he, Keutsch, and others published a paper that found using calcite, a mineral made up of calcium carbonate, “may cool the planet while simultaneously repairing the ozone layer.”
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603974/harvard-scientists-moving-ahead-on-plans-for-atmospheric-geoengineering-experiments/

He has claimed that we would be mad to try and offset ALL our warming, because of the side effects you raise, but should be much safer moderating about half the warming.

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Betting the future on a single opinion is mad gambling.

Needs options studies, expert review and open debate, not a “General Custer” approach, IMHO.

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To be fair to the MIT researchers…
They number 2. That’s better than only 1. General Custer might have chosen a different path if he had listened to one advisor.

They recognise the need for much more research.

They don’t recommend “turning the sky white”.

They do not propose to go beyond small scale experiments to determine the effects of certain materials in the upper atmosphere.

They accept and understand the need for independent review, even of these early experiments.

MIT are a very long way from recommending full tests of impacts on climate – only of increased reflectance of the atmosphere.

MIT are a very long way from anything remotely akin to that which EN has concluded to be necessary action. Those conclusions and recommendations are EN’s not MIT’s.

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The Paris Accord commits the world to achieve “net zero emissions” by the year 2100. So it’s not a question of if, but how.

People have been saying “it’s too late” to do this or that about global emissions at least since I and a friend began to write a book about solar energy in the early seventies. For our part, we thought there was a time window to market solar-plus-storage technologies, because “fusion will be commercial 40 years from now”.

I rather think people have always said, everything is about to run out. It is a popular sentiment that creates a ready audience for an author who can weave the idea into his own loony scheme. In the 1950s, a paper was published, warning that the oil explorers of Saudi Arabia were about to run out of so-called giant fields. The fact that he was referring to 1950s type oil, so easy for 1950s type refineries to process, was overlooked as the popular press cried out, see it’s true, it’s true. Thus was the concept of “peak oil” invented.

Well, fusion is still 40 years away, and voices continue to say that everything is gonna run out soon and it’s too late for fusion, fission and everyone else’s ideas to be useful.

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“Fusion is still 40 years away.”

How true!

A couple of years back, a senior Australian medical researcher told a conference I was attending something very close to:
“Any research project with a timeline of 5 years or more is the same as one with no timeline at all. The similarity is that they both extend beyond funding guidelines, hence are will not be completed.”

This applies universally, not just to biomedical research. Be very careful with predictions of the future and certainly do not bet the farm on them.

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How true! Our solar-plus-storage scheme of 40-odd years ago was poised on the release of two technologies that were in the final stages of proof. One was amorphous silicon (not brittle chips of crystals) that could be painted onto a roofing panel with fine wires in between. The storage technology was the roofing panel itself, a porous material containing blobs of electrolyte that allowed ions to accumulate at either end of the blob. As far as I know, both technologies are still in the final stages of proof.

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Um, I hate to play devil’s advocate Singleton but you’re pushing a 5 year rule a bit too hard there mate. Have you seen how long ITER is taking to build? How long it has already been funded, and how long it will be funded into the future?

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5 year rules… Not my “rule”.

I forget the name of the prof who addressed the national malaria conference in Brisbane 2 or 3 years back. I do know that he ended up receiving funding from the organisation that I am part of for a PhD scholar for up to 4 years, with other allowances thrown in beyond the candidate’s stipend.

Good things do happen sometimes in research – recent reports suggest that they and others, in Australia and elsewhere, are developing some interesting candidate malaria vaccines, well inside the notional 5-year mark.

Getting to and through Stage 3 testing is another matter.

As father of a daughter whose PhD ended up proving that the hypothesis was incorrect, I have seen first hand the despair of researchers when their projects don’t end in glory and a million citations, plus, in her case, a somewhat unhappy supervising professor who staked his reputation on the work a little early and ended up with egg on his face.

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So the correct answer is much longer than 5 years.

“Construction of the ITER Tokamak complex started in 2013[7] and the building costs are now over US$14 billion as of June 2015.[8] The facility is expected to finish its construction phase in 2021 and will start commissioning the reactor that same year and initiate plasma experiments in 2025 with full deuterium–tritium fusion experiments starting in 2035.[9][1] If ITER becomes operational, it will become the largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment in use with a plasma volume of 840 cubic meters,[10] surpassing the Joint European Torus by almost a factor of 10. The first commercial demonstration fusion power station, named DEMO, is proposed to follow on from the ITER project.[11]”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITER

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http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-14/solar-thermal-power-plant-announcement-for-port-augusta/8804628

Solar reserve will be building a 150 MW solar tower thermal generation plant for the S Australia government with 1100 MWh of hot salt storage (described as 8-10 hours of storage in various place, presumably because the load outside daytime will be lower).

The cost per MWh is AUS $78 or USA $61, and constructions starts in 2018. That’s under half the cost per MWh for Crescent Dunes, the first Solar Reserve project in the USA near Las Vegas.

S Australia has also commissioned the world’s largest Tesla battery for its grid.

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I struggle to relocate the forums, to find the relevant thread(s) and to identify recent material from historical.

It might help if a link and explanatory note were added to the front page of this column.

As things stand, I avoid the proboards/forum/whatever unless specifically directed to an item contained therein.

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Without a subscription to Financial Times, we are unable to read the link. However since it refers to “reserves”, I can confidently bet that the authors are ignorant of (and perhaps indifferent to) the long-term prospects for finding and extracting ever-increasing quantities of any mineral commodity whatsoever.

Short-term shortages occur, of course they do. In time of war, shortages become of national importance. But in the long term, exploration and innovation produce enough to bring down the market price of these commodities to somewhere near their own “iron law”, that is, the cost of their production. If you check out the price of a scattering of commodities, you will find they are all in the ballpark of tens of thousands of dollars per tonne, money largely already spent before the metal hits the market. Sure, some miners do get rich, but they get rich on volume turnover, not margins.

People who are concerned about our resources should be attending to wasted resources of area, particularly those areas sterilised by our rubbish dumps. If there really were desperate shortages of zinc, copper, cobalt etc, our mineral suppliers would be digging up our all rubbish dumps, setting robots to identify and allocate each little fragment, then separating and purifying the allegedly-precious commodities. But they don’t, because the commodities aren’t scarce and they aren’t precious enough to make that effort.

Pity about the wastelands…

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Pardon my link to the Financial Times. I am not a subscriber either and, having fluked entry twice in one day. I suggest that you Google “BHP positions itself at centre of electric-car battery market + Financial Times” – it worked for me again, just now.

I do agree that the definition of “Reserves” is subject to interpretation. Reserves will always be far less than figures for the size of the resource.

Proven or probable reserves imply (to my mind) estimates based on measurement, of commercially viable tonnages.

Part of the foregoing discussion demonstrates the wide variation that is possible in practice between (for example) the FT’s report of reserves (ie measured in some way) and resources (probably inferred rather than measured).

Since reserves exclude uncommercial portions, which are not excluded from estimations of resources, an increase in market price of an ore will affect both the size of the reserve and the identification and exploration of additional resources which might, after still further with investigation, demonstrate the existence of additional reserves.

Or have I missed something?

Re garbage tips…

If the concentration of a valuable material is such as to make recovery from waste, then that waste is a candidate for recovery, whether it is a tailings dam, a slag heap or a municipal garbage tip.

Isn’t that pretty much all that we need to know?

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Ah, sounds like you were brought up on “the Magic Pudding” – the pudding that never runs out. A delightful tale.

In support of your thesis that no resource can literally run out, I point to oil of which it is estimated that total world resources at the time of the Industrial revolution amounted to 22 trillion barrels. (i.e. not recoverable resource, just the total resource.) Since that time human civilisation has used up over 1 trillion barrels. That theoretically leaves 21 trillion barrels for us still to exploit. So in theory we don’t have a problem for a very long while.

One problem arises is that a minor part of that original resource was held in the very large oil reserves located in Texas, Saudi Arabia and so forth, and it is the impending depletion of these that is causing most concern..

So, although oil will never run out two problems have emerged in the last two decades. Increasing cost of extraction and the search for minor reserves of recoverable hydrocarbons. The first problem has caused no end of political and economic disruption for oil producing countries and corporations. The second problem is also political but also environmental. It stems from the worldwide drilling on farmlands to extract unconventional liquids and gases. Landowners, even conservative landowners, just don’t like it.

Whilst renewables advocates like to crow about the magic of solar energy technology that has seen prices going through the floor, in parallel there have been much less publicised but equally amazing advances in drilling techniques – especially horizontal drilling – that have enabled the extraction of liquid hydrocarbons from tiny dissipated reserves that were already known about but were regarded as being inaccessible.

Getting back to the 21 trillion estimate of remaining liquids, it is estimated that approximately 6 of those would possibly be economically extractable using current technology. Which means we can still burn our planet to a cinder, so to speak, if we really go gangbusters. But we can easily do that with coal anyway.

I think it is reasonable to make the same case for lithium and uranium resources. Ingenuity will find a way to extract more or make different batteries and nuclear facilities.

The hanging question is where does all this lead us? Does this reality mean that exponential industrial growth is totally unrestrained by physical resources?

This question reminds me of a 1972 environmental statement issued by a coalition of Tasmanian Industry in defence of marine pollution that was happening at the time: “The sea, owing to its vastness, has the capacity to absorb the wastes of man to an infinite degree”, it proclaimed. We may laugh about that now, but I think that was considered to be a reasonable statement at the time because most people accepted that industrial growth was unrestrained by our planet’s capacity to absorb virtually any amount of pollution. We have learned to accept those limits at least.

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In the paradigm that starts with a defined resource of X tonnes, industrial society eats its way through the constant resource at ever-increasing speed until the X+1th tonne brings up nothing but barren rock. Consequently industrial society collapses. That is a model of the world where the starting assumption guarantees the inevitability of failure.

Consider instead that any commodity occurs at varying concentrations in every piece of rock of the earth’s crust. Then, as the rocks with the highest grade are worked out, technology advances forward in order to extract the same commodity from lesser concentrations, in more remote places, with an ever increasing use of energy. Since the commodity is spread throughout the earth’s crust, its availability outlasts industrial society. In that model, the commodity is unlimited.

Long before that process could make a significant dent in the earth’s crust, the wastes created by the use of the commodity accumulate to obstruct the expansion. Industrial society then reverts to recycling rather than extraction. Again, ingenuity and energy use increases in order to extract the commodity, this time from the waste.

Currently, it is our gaseous waste from the extraction of carbon that is getting in the way. It is time we invoked ingenuity and energy to recycle it – as a replacement for the fuel that created the waste. More energy will be needed to reform the fuel, and that fresh energy must come from other than extracted carbon.

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The case of helium is interesting in this regard.

Once used, this gas works its way out of the atmosphere and is lost to space for ever.

Try convincing even a 10-year-old who is aware of this situation that He is an unlimited resource.

But the grown-ups don’t give a hoot – they know better and continue to use He in party balloons and other frivolities.

Are we on the way to a discussion that challenges whether, in fact, there is a “tragedy of the commons”?

I subscribe to the theory that, in relation to consumption of any limited resource, this general principal holds true: “marginal gain per unit consumed decreases with increased consumption”. It is also known as the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility.

See e.g. Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus Economics, McGraw-Hill 2005, Eighteenth Edition, pp 96-98, 109-11.

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SE, if you are consulting an economics textbook to find out about geology and mining engineering, you’re listening to the wrong end of town. You would have to agree that in economics scenarios the common starting point is “assume a fixed resource of X”. But of course, if you start with a limited resource and run any projection of its future, trusting listeners can be persuaded of “discovery” of its eventual collapse.

In this light, your so-called law of diminishing returns is trivial. It says, take a fixed resource, nibble it away and watch the price go up. So what? That might have been a useful model in the twentieth century when mass transport forced local planners to look at local resources only, but in today’s globalised economy it has become clear that all mineral resources will long outlive the lifetime of our species.

I confess that I, too, squirm at the wastefulness of helium balloons. However helium is one of the few minerals that is endlessly renewing itself. By doing a little arithmetic on the geothermal flux, one finds that helium is being re-generated at 1000 tons per second, with an average escape to space of the same amount. It is so mobile that it permeates all rocks. As a normal contaminant in natural gas streams, it is most commonly dumped to the atmosphere along with argon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. There is only one gas train in the southern hemisphere that has invested in helium condensation, but that is enough to saturate the Southeast Asian, Australian and New Zealand markets.

You say, are we converging on a crisis of the commons? You bet we are! Far from having a shortage of mineral resources, we have a surfeit of them. It is the waste products of their consumption that is poisoning the commons.

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This just in from an Eco-modernist contact on the Ecomodernist Facebook group: and I like the goal! “Attention, fellow nuclear advocates! Please take some time to read this document with instructions on a Twitter campaign I am running. The link is below. It may seem lofty, but I want to try to get a scientifically accurate nuclear power episode on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Adam Ruins Everything. These would be excellent platforms to debunk misconceptions and misinformation, and could change the national narrative.”
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bo437XdDTnGlHT7-YxCgnHSin2ZWcIcfod8omtBBGMM/edit

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Eclipse Now said “How many solar farms and wind turbines did cyclone Harvey kill? ”

Texas has very little solar (around 500 MW last time I looked), so there were no reports on disruption from Harvey.

Most of the wind farms in Texas are in the Panhandle where there is the best wind, so these were not affected by Harvey as Corpus Christi and Houston are a few hundred miles away.

Here’s an article on wind farms in the Harvey area.

http://nawindpower.com/checking-texas-wind-farms-path-harvey?utm_medium=email&utm_source=LNH+08-30-2017&utm_campaign=NAW+Latest+News+Headlines

One wind farm operated throughout with no problems.

The operators of another left it and it was operated remotely until wind speeds exceeded 55 mph, when it was shut down. It started back up later, but not all turbines restarted remotely. The operators had to be able to get on site safely before assessing how to restart the other turbines which was not immediately possible. A quick Google doesn’t provide any update.

Apparently there are technical considerations to restoring power to areas when the local source is variable wind power, though the report doesn’t go into detail.

One significant problem has been in transmission lines. The original failures were fixed but then there were more failures in other places, as might be expected.

Here is the ERCOT bulletin on Harvey :

http://nawindpower.com/checking-texas-wind-farms-path-harvey?utm_medium=email&utm_source=LNH+08-30-2017&utm_campaign=NAW+Latest+News+Headlines

Power prices in Texas were below $20 / MWh on one day towards the end of Harvey, possibly because there were stronger winds much further from Harvey. In a small region near Houston prices were much higher, presumably due to transmission line failures.

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I’m not sure if this site is still operational. Appears to be just handful of hangers-on talking to each other. It’s now a whole year since an article has been put onto BNC.

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I can think of multiple possible reasons for low or high prices, depending on load, transmission lines, baseload power Vs variable, etc.

I really don’t expect the full story to be public for a few weeks, in order for the power engineers to gather & analyse data, draft a report, have it reviewed and then issued. Right now those same folk are probably pretty much trying to match available capacity with returning loads.

It is too soon for point-scoring, although I must admit to having done a little along those lines a few days back, before I got a grip on reality.

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https://www.platts.com/latest-news/electric-power/brussels/uk-offshore-wind-cfd-hits-new-low-at-gbp5750mwh-26801779

The results of the UK 2017 summer renewable energy CfD (Contract for Differences) auction are now known. Three large offshore wind projects succeeded with a total of 3.2 GW capacity [probably at 45-50% capacity factor]. The strike price is guaranteed for 15 years and consists of revenue from the wholesale market price for power topped up with a subsidy to meet the agreed target strike price. In other words the strike price is the total wholesale cost albeit provided in a split way. The wind farms are expected to last for 25 years.

The 860 MW Triton Knoll offshore wind project won a CfD with a strike price of £74.75 / MWh (GB) = $98.4 (US) for installation starting 2021/2022.

The 1.4 GW Hornsea Project 2 and the 950 MW Moray East offshore wind projects won with a strike price of just £57.50 / MWh (GB) = $75.87 (US) for installation starting 2023/2024. [These will probably using 13-14 MW turbines which is one reason why the strike price is lower.]

The previous 2015 round of CfD auctions came in at a strike price of £119.89 / MWh for offshore wind capacity to be delivered in 2017/18, and £114.39 / MWh for 2018/19. In other words the lowest strike price for the 2017 round of £57.50 / MWh is half the lowest price for the previous 2015 round.

The new Hinkley point nuclear power plant was contracted at £92.5 / MWh with a reduction to £89 if a second is built later.

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The following Rx for climate change is excerpted from a post by James Hansen:

“Political compromise is still possible […]. Why not suggest what economists and conservatives agree is the fastest way to phase down emissions, carbon fee and dividend? Such a policy is no cure-all, but it can make the price of fossil fuels honest and spur innovations needed to move us to a clean energy future. […]

“Large amounts of dispatchable (baseload) energy are needed, especially in countries such as China and India, where energy use is still growing, but also in the West, where we want to electrify a larger fraction of our energy use. Renewables and energy storage will help, but we cannot phase out fossil fuels and ‘fracking’ without the help of modern nuclear power.”

Click to access 20191211_Fire.pdf

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