All posts by Robert Wilson

Nothing

Myth busting solar energy in Germany

I am much too busy writing up my thesis to publish anything substantial on energy at the minute. But I churned out a very quick one over the weekend (or more accurately I finished something I wrote two months ago) debunking the rather popular meme that Germany now gets half of its energy from solar panels. Read it here.

I suspect this will be the last thing I write for a couple of months. Though I have a primer on capacity factors that I wrote a year ago and have yet to tidy up. So, if I’m in the mood I might tidy up the loose ends in that one a month ago. Anyway, you probably have better things to be doing…..

 

Bringing coals to Newcastle

The phrase “bringing coals to Newcastle” has been around for almost 500 years. It signifies an activity that is rather pointless.

And for centuries it made literal sense. Coal was put on boats, and later trains, near Newcastle and shipped to London and elsewhere. The phrase then did not merely indicate a superfluous activity, but reflected the reality that Britain’s dominance and its empire was powered by the coal mines not far from Newcastle.

But today the phrase no longer makes any literal sense, and is probably rather confusing to anyone born in the last twenty years. According to official government statistics, Britain did not start to import coal until 1970. In fact, for a large part of the twentieth century Britain was more than self-sufficient. When coal production peaked in 1913, Britain exported 96 million tonnes of the 292 million tonnes produced that year. But by 1970 Britain was only exporting 3 million tonnes of the 147 million tonnes produced.

coalimportsHowever, in the space of one century Britain’s annual coal production has declined from 292 million tonnes to only 13 million tonnes, an astonishing decline. Yet, last year Britain consumed 60 million tonnes of coal, and Britain then had to import 49 million tonnes of coal.

Bringing coals to Newcastle then is now a necessary activity, not a pointless one. The coal that powers the many remaining coal power plants in the north of England is more likely to come from Russia than from anywhere near Newcastle.

But within two decades the activity will once again become largely pointless. New coal power plants without carbon capture and storage our now illegal, and almost all existing coal power plants will be closed by 2030. This will then leave the use of coal in industry as the only major source of consumption. But this was a mere 10 million tonnes in 2013, mostly coal used in blast furnaces. And Britain is not likely to see a grand renaissance in the production of steel from coke.

The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution then is seeing the death of coal before more or less every other major economy. Among those other economies is Germany, which despite its ostensibly green credentials, recently approved plans to let Vattenfal take 200 million tonnes of lignite out of the ground after 2026.

So, coal is dying in Britain, while getting a shot of life in Germany. Perhaps Britain is not as far behind Germany as many in the green movement would have you believe.

 

Australia produces a lot of coal

I’ve got a new piece up over at Energy Collective. A quick run through which countries produce the most fossil fuels in absolute terms and on a per-capita basis. I wrote it because I calculated that Australia produced 8 times more coal per-capita than China and I wondered if Australia was number 1 in per-capita coal production. And they are. So, the Australian who was emailing me recently to complain about how Australians are continually portrayed as dirty and China is much dirty, well, he was bloody wrong.

Matt Ridley can’t even get his anti-wind farm myths correct

A simple piece of advice is that if you are going to bust myths at least get basic facts correct. Matt Ridley however appears incapable of doing this.

Here he is in this week’s Times busting some myths about renewable energy:

Onshore wind: one of the cheapest renewables but still twice as costly as gas or coal, it kills eagles and bats, harms tourism, divides communities and takes up lots of space. The money goes from the poor to the rich, and the carbon dioxide saving is tiny, because of the low density of wind and the need to back it up with diesel generators. These too now need subsidy because they cannot run at full capacity.

We could of course spend all day pondering the curious propensity of right-wing opponents of renewable energy complaining about how it harms the poor. Where is this concern for the poor the rest of the time exactly? And I suspect that, given Ridley’s investments in coal mines, that harm to wildlife caused by energy infrastructure is not something that troubles his mind on a regular basis. (The coal mining, I should point out, occurs on the estate Ridley inherited. And again, I could point out that Ridley has hypocritically used the “wind farms benefit rich land owners” card. Evidently, rich land owners benefiting are a problem only so long as the rich land owner does not go by the name of Viscount Ridley.)

But what is most absurd for a supposed piece of myth busting is the following sentence “the carbon dioxide saving is tiny, because of the low density of wind and the need to back it up with diesel generators. These too now need subsidy because they cannot run at full capacity.” Here, Ridley peddles the stupid myth about wind farms not reducing emissions because of back up, and then adds a new myth on top of it – that the low density of wind farms means they do little to reduce emissions.

What’s more embarrassing is that Ridley does not even bother getting the myth correct. It is not back up by diesel generators that supposedly means wind farms do little to reduce emissions. Instead it is back up by open cycle gas turbines. This myth, of course, will not die. Yet, on the face of it the argument is absurd. Supposedly each gigawatt of wind capacity must be backed up by one gigawatt of open cycle gas turbine capacity. This at least is what most versions of the myth assume. So, there should be around 10 gigawatts of open cycle gas turbine capacity in Britain. I invite anyone to have a look through the British government’s list of power plants and to find me anywhere close to 10 gigawatts of open cycle gas turbines.

The other supposed reason wind farms do little to reduce emissions appears to be something Ridley has made out of whole cloth. I pay attention to these debates and I have never heard anyone argue that the “low density of wind” means that wind farms do little to reduce emissions. Yes, wind farms are low density. And this is a very serious problem that I have written about many times. As people from Vaclav Smil to David MacKay have argued the space requirements of wind farms will almost certainly place real limits of the expansion of wind power. This however has absolutely nothing to do with whether wind turbines reduce emissions. Ridley is clearly mixing up his arguments against wind farms, in the same way he mixed up diesel generators and gas power plants.

This however is what we get in energy debates. Faux engineering arguments against energy technologies, whether they are wind turbines or nuclear power plants. We would all be much better off if we simply stated our real reasons for opposing things.

The Differing Fortunes of Gas Power Plants in Britain And America

To keep myself mildly occupied over breakfast or lunch I will be blogging here a bit more regularly, perhaps once a day for a while. Mostly this is just to tie up loose ends, ideas for columns I had that didn’t go anywhere, but where I had a graph or two finished that I can turn into a quick blog post. These things will probably be no more than a paragraph or two. A trend highlighted, a myth exposed.

So, here is the first. And an interesting one. The change in the capacity factors of gas power plants in Britain and America between 2008 and 2012.

In one country cheap shale gas has resulted in an increase in the capacity factors of gas power plants. In the other expensive gas, cheap coal and low – or more accurately non-existent – carbon prices have resulted in a massive reduction the capacity factors of gas power plants.

The graph below shows both just how much has changed with gas in America and Europe, but also just how difficult it is to predict the future. No-one would have predicted this a decade ago.

capFactors

 

A rant about the EU’s energy efficiency target

I don’t blog here much any more, so if anyone is still reading this site they are perhaps overly optimistic. But I would like to briefly discuss a question that has been perplexing for a while.

Here it is.

The EU is currently debating whether it should set an energy efficiency target. The target has been mentioned heavily in the media, or at least media of the green variety, recently.

First, I’ll explain what the target is, given that most reports have got the thing wrong. It is not a target to reduce EU energy consumption by 30%, or to improve energy efficiency by 30% by 2030. Instead it is a target to reduce EU energy consumption by 30% in comparison with what it is expected to be in 2030.

This baseline, however, is dubious at best. In 2007, an EU model predicted what energy consumption would be under business as usual in 2020 and 2030, and this is the basis of the target. As anyone with any familiarity with the issue knows, such long-term forecasts are essentially worthless. And just think, one year after this forecast was made the EU economy almost collapsed totally. So, why not make a new forecast?

This however is not what I want to discuss. Instead, I want to figure out why people think an energy efficiency target will reduce fossil fuel imports or consumption. For, unless I am missing something, this is utter gibberish.

However, this now appears to be the common view. See Chris Huhne in today’s Guardian. An energy efficiency target will stick it to Putin, supposedly.

But, how can it?

The EU now has a bunch of proposed energy and climate targets. One is for energy efficiency, a second is for renewables and a third is for greenhouse gas emissions. The greenhouse gas emissions target is to reduce EU GHG by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Does this greenhouse gas emissions target not essentially set fossil fuel consumption in 2030? How can it be lowered by an energy efficiency target?

Almost all of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from burning fossil fuels. So, to simplify things let’s assume that the greenhouse gas emissions target simply relates to fossil fuel use for energy generation.

How then would an energy efficiency target reduce fossil fuel energy imports or consumption?

If you reduce fossil fuel consumption, you then reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This will then probably just reduce the price of carbon on the European Emissions Trading Scheme, which will in turn increase the burning of fossil fuels. So, again. How can the efficiency target possibly reduce fossil fuels use or imports?

Paradoxically, the target may even make it more difficult to reduce emissions. Think about carbon capture and storage. What happens if you attach a carbon capture device to a power station or blast furnace. Two things: carbon emissions go down and consumption of fossil fuels goes up. So, the expansion of carbon capture and storage will actually make it more difficult for the EU to meet the energy efficiency target.

Similarly, there are no shortage of problems with how this target is defined. As far as I know the current formulation of the target is purely in terms of primary energy consumption. This is deeply problematic. Let’s imagine I replace a 40% efficient coal power plant with a 60% efficient gas power plant, a 40% efficient nuclear power plant or a wind farm.

If I do it with a gas power plant, efficiency goes up significantly. If I do it with a nuclear power plant it stays the same. However, if I do it with a wind farm it more than doubles. Why? Because under the EU’s definition of primary energy, a wind farm is 100% efficient, as is a solar panel. This is a totally arbitrary decision and clearly should not be the basis of sound policy making.

Even more paradoxically, a higher efficiency target would probably promote the use of coal. If emissions are set by the GHG target, but energy consumption is lower, then you are much more free to burn coal than gas, which emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy.

I could go on, there are more contradictions inherent in the proposed EU energy and climate policies, but we would be here much too long.

Anyway, that’s my vent over. But, the comments section is open to anyone who can explain to me how an EU energy efficiency target can reduce fossil fuel imports, when fossil fuel consumption is essentially set by the greenhouse gas emissions target.

China Now Makes Half Of Everything

I wrote last week about how rapidly China’s energy and emissions have grown in the last decade. But how about materials production?

Here is a new rule of thumb: if humans make something, then China probably makes at least half of it. To check how precise this rule of thumb is I spent an hour or so producing the chart below (using USGS stats). This shows what percentage of each of the world’s most important materials reported by USGS is made in China.

ChinaMaterials

As you can see it is roughly half or more for almost everything.

Of course if we are simply thinking in terms of weight and energy required for production, materials are dominated by cement, steel and aluminium.

So, the rule of thumb holds very well. And is likely to hold very well for a long time, unless China sees an economic contraction.

This all raises an obvious question. Has a single country every produced this much of the world’s steel, cement, or aluminium before?

If I find the time I will expand on China’s materials consumption, and its potential impacts on climate change, in a future piece at The Energy Collective.