All posts by Robert Wilson


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.



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.


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.

Latest Column: China Versus America

I have been rather busy with my thesis lately, so have not had much time for energy related business. But my first column in a month is ready for reading for those with more time on their hands than me. It looks at the changing positions of America and China in terms of energy consumption and climate change. Read it here.

Right now I’m too busy for much more than a column a month. Though, the unwillingness of the recent IPCC report to mention which countries actually contribute the most to climate change makes me in the mood to write about that, a subject I have left untouched in the past.

Latest column: burning wood

What is the world’s biggest provider of renewable energy? Most people will probably think it is hydro-electricity, or perhaps wind energy. The more informed might think of all that bio-energy in Africa and parts of Asia.

But most will be surprised that bio-energy is in fact the biggest source of renewable energy in both the EU and the US. Not only this but the historical trend has been reversed. For most of the twentieth century bio-energy declined decade to decade. Now it is having some kind of come back.

I look into this stuff in my latest column. Read it here.

R users may be interested in the packages I used for the plots. The graphs were produced using ggplot2 with the ggthemes packages to give the Economist style look to the graphs. The map produced using ggmaps, which lets you plot on to google maps using R.