Author: Robert Wilson

Carbon Counter will return

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Well, I hoped to get a couple of posts today out each day this week, given it was my last week of blogging this year. But it turns out I was much too busy trying to optimize R code. (Valuable lesson: dplyr is rather useful for big data in R.)

I should be back in the New Year, I think, maybe, maybe not. This blog mostly gives me a chance to vent about energy issues, and if I find another venue for venting I might never return…..

Anyone who wants to bother me or ask for my opinion on something over this period should contact my by email. It’s listed under Contact.

I have nothing more to say. But please return in five months and shoot me in the back if you find me repeating myself. The one thing I’ve learned about energy is that things move slowly. So the probability of my preoccupations changing in the next 5 months are slim…..

Californian solar is much more reliable than German solar

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I explained yesterday that Germany is never going to run on solar power for the simple reason that it is too far north and too cloudy. Winter is simply too much of a problem for high latitude countries to get very far with solar power.

Things, of course, are a lot different in sunnier southern locations. So let’s compare Germany with California. Read the rest of this entry »

Germany will never run on solar power. Here is why

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If you rely too heavily on social media for your information, you are liable to believe that Germany now gets half of its energy from solar panels. The reality of course is that Germany gets nowhere near to half of its energy or electricity needs from solar panels. Far from it.

Last year, 5.7% of Germany’s electricity generation and 2.5% of primary energy consumption came from solar panels (BP Statistical Review of World Energy). The contribution solar panels make towards Germany’s renewable energy target (which uses the final energy consumption metric) is even lower. Less than 1.5% of German final energy consumption now comes from solar panels according to Eurostat.
Read the rest of this entry »

How much does wind power vary during the year in Europe?

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A month ago I looked at how much wind farm output in Europe varies during the day. On average that is.

Today let us look at monthly variations in output. I will do this for six countries: Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Ireland and Denmark. In each case I will look at mean output in megawatts (MW) over the last 4 years. (Though in the case of Spain I don’t have data for 2014, so I’ll only do three years.) Read the rest of this entry »

Carbon Counter will be closing for the rest of the year

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I don’t like to disappoint my readers, but I feel it is time for a break from blogging.

The reason is simple. I need to get a lot of papers written by the end of the year, and I lack the time to a decent job on the blog. Recently, I was doing OK. A blog post every day or so during the week, readership higher then ever, referenced by the BBC, misrepresented by the Australian.

Sadly, I can no longer keep this going. I’m too busy. Currently I’m working on a project here in Glasgow, ecosystem modelling and fisheries. Interesting stuff, which I would blog about if I imagined more people than my office mate would read it. This project runs until the end of the year, and I have no idea where I will be after that. Doing theoretical ecology or energy systems modelling I expect, and perhaps in another country.

But as an early career researcher I need papers. Publish or perish, as the cliché goes. Time spent regaling you about the intermittency of wind farms or the unreliability of Chinese energy statistics is time not spent written papers. There are about half a dozen that could, and should, be written in the coming months. This will not done if I blog every day.

I am also beginning to tire of the whole business of blogging. Often it feels as if the only way I can pull in big reading numbers is to repeat myself, which I hate doing. Last week, a post I wrote on German renewable energy being 3.3% of energy supply got shared 2,800 times on Facebook. For whatever reason this irked me. Correcting popular misconceptions is necessary, but tiring. Posts I write that simply aim to inform, well, they don’t get three thousand shares on Facebook. They normally don’t even get one share.

The one or two hours a day I spend on this blog will therefore now be dedicated to writing papers. As Vaclav Smil said, “Hemingway knew the secret. You get up and, first thing in the morning, you do your 500 words. Do it every day and you’ve got a book in eight or nine months”. It’s time for me to do my 500 words a day.

So, the blog will close, and it will close at the end of this week. It will re-open (possibly) in the New Year. I have a bunch of nearly complete blog posts. Some of it half readable and three quarters informative. They will be your last meal before the fast.

Scotland is banning GM crops. What is it thinking?

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News comes today that Scotland is to ban GM crops. The SNP defends it thus:

‘There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14bn food and drink sector.

‘Scottish food and drink is valued at home and abroad for its natural, high quality which often attracts a premium price, and I have heard directly from food and drink producers in other countries that are ditching GM because of a consumer backlash.’

Here apparently is something deemed natural.

Killing a cow; chopping it up into little pieces; freezing it, thawing, it, shipping it by boat, truck and train; wrapping it in plastic; placing it on a plane to China or anywhere else willing to exchange pandas for food; frying it by burning a gas you have taken out of the ground, a gas which is the fossil remains of plants which died millions of years ago, a gas which is transported over continent sprawling pipelines.

This cow itself is the result of thousands of years of artificial selection. Its genes are not its ancestors genes. We have domesticated the cow, it is our slave. Its only purpose, its “natural” purpose, is to provide protein, fat and carbohydrates for humans.

On the other hand, moving a few genes from one animal to another, this is unnatural, whatever that means. It must therefore be banned. Furthermore, we must invoke the precauationary principle to give irrational impulse the veneer of legal dogma. Perhaps we need an additional principle: the absolute lack of scientific evidence of harm should not be used as a reason to not invoke the precautionary principle.

The ongoing fetishisation of the natural is nothing more than unthinking misanthropy. When you walk into a good restaurant what you eat is not natural, it is the result of thousands of years of human creativity, ingenuity and innovation.

The words “natural food”, much like the words “traditional food”, should not confer an element of quality. Quite the opposite. The good qualities of food come because humans have improved on nature.

Human innovation in food must not be stopped by a few irrational environmentalists, no matter how well meaning they may be. We have spent thousands of years improving upon the genetic qualities, the “natural” genetic quality, of crops and animals. This has been a necessary part of human progress.

A planet of seven billion people could not get by with “natural” foods. The “natural” crops of thousands of years ago had such low yields that we would all starve if we returned to this nirvana state where human innovation had not improved upon nature. It is time we praised the benefits of unnatural food and denigrated those of natural food.

Tennessee’s coal power plants are 53 years old on average, but in Texas they are 24 years younger

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Over at Vox, Brad Plumer has a good explainer of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Roughly speaking each state will have to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by a certain percentage.

The state goals worked out by the EPA obviously result from a combination of the existing electricity mix in each state, current economics and political lobbying.

One factor that plays into it (or probably did) is the age of coal power plants. Young coal power plants are more difficult to retire than old ones. This is relatively indisputable. On the international stage this is best seen by comparing Britain with China. Britain has not built a new coal power plant in the last three decades. The vast majority of China’s were built this century. Britain will effectively phase out its existing fleet within a decade. China will be lumbered with its for the next 50 years or so.

If we want to find out the average of coal power plants in each US state we will have to calculate it ourselves using EIA data. EIA’s Form 860 lists the capacity and operating year of more or less all US power plants. The main fuel used in power plants is given, along with the capacity and state. This is enough to give us fairly accurate estimates of the average of coal power plants in each state.

So here they are, ranked from top to bottom.

State Coal capacity (GW) Mean age State Coal capacity (GW) Mean age
Tennessee 9.61 52.75 Kansas 5.47 39.21
New Hampshire 0.56 51.04 Virginia 5.92 38.77
Massachusetts 1.43 49.92 Delaware 0.62 37.84
New York 2.63 49.89 North Dakota 4.24 37.30
Connecticut 0.40 47.00 Wyoming 6.91 35.71
Alaska 0.11 46.38 Oregon 0.64 35.00
Alabama 12.30 45.87 Utah 5.04 34.91
Michigan 12.25 45.83 Mississippi 2.89 34.57
Idaho 0.02 45.51 Wisconsin 8.77 34.17
Ohio 20.27 44.79 Florida 11.34 34.04
New Jersey 2.14 43.57 Oklahoma 5.84 33.92
Pennsylvania 16.25 42.63 Iowa 7.08 33.71
Washington 1.46 42.50 Colorado 5.75 33.63
Minnesota 5.26 42.45 Montana 2.66 33.22
West Virginia 14.97 42.22 Arizona 6.71 32.88
Maryland 5.14 42.06 Louisiana 3.80 32.25
Illinois 17.29 40.88 Nebraska 4.27 31.46
South Dakota 0.48 40.78 South Carolina 6.28 31.23
Kentucky 17.82 40.42 Nevada 1.45 30.95
Missouri 13.13 40.41 California 0.28 29.37
Georgia 13.49 40.31 Texas 25.42 28.88
New Mexico 3.74 40.25 Arkansas 5.49 26.40
Indiana 20.91 39.88 Maine 0.10 25.00
North Carolina 10.97 39.86 Hawaii 0.20 23.00

Tennessee has the oldest coal power plants in America. On average they were built half a century ago. Texas and Arkansas both have relatively significant and relatively young coal power plants. They are just under 30 years old, 20 years younger than those in Tennessee.

It would be interesting to compare the numbers in this table with the state goals set by EIA. If I have the time this weekend I might do a simple analysis of this. Obviously states with older power plants will be able to close them earlier, and thus reduce their emissions faster. It’s also true that older power plants tend to be less efficient. So it should, all things being equal, be much easier for Tennessee to reduce its emissions from coal power plants than it is for Texas. Of course, not all things are equal.

Note on data

State by state data used is available here.

Mean age is weighted by the capacity of each plant.

I processed the data in R and produced the html table using xtable. I have had to manually adjust the EIA files to make them readable in R, so I’m not in a position to post easily reproducible code here. If anyone wants the R code and simplified EIA files used for this they can email me.