Magical Thinking about Energy

Monbiot’s column a couple of days ago- “No Fracking, drilling or digging: it’s the only way to save life on earth”– is about as egregious a piece of misdirection as I have seen coming from him, and that is saying something.

The problem under discussion is the unobtainable nature of the Paris climate agreements, and Monbiot is absolutely correct in asking whether governments know what they have signed. Whether they do know or not, setting arbitrary targets for CO2 reductions without the slightest idea as to how they can be achieved in practice has never been a good strategy. Fossil fuels are not like CFCs, which were basically a set of chemicals which it was possible to develop alternatives for and then simply ban, as was done under the Montreal Protocol; they are, rather, the lifeblood of the modern world. There is currently no known way of doing without them, and a couple of bilion of our brethren have yet to gain access to the wondrous benefits they can bestow, so we can assume use will continue to increase globally.

“a 2C target” Monbiot explains “means that we can use only around 85% of the fossil fuel that’s currently good to go, while a 1.5C target means we can extract little more than a third… So what’s the point of developing new reserves if the Paris agreement precludes the full extraction of those already in production?”

What indeed. He then goes onto point out that the only alternative to meet these climate targets is the widespread adoption of BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage):

As for the belief among some governments that they can overshoot the climate targets, then at a later date suck carbon dioxide out of the air: this depends on scenarios that would be no less realistic if they involved sorcery. The most popular proposal is to combine the capture and storage phantasm with biofuel plantations covering an area between one and three times the size of India, then harvesting the material they grow, burning it in power stations and burying the emissions.

I agree that this is unfeasible, and it is worrying that Paris does indeed seem to be based on these assumptions. Monbiot claims however that there is a simple no-brainer alternative:

All this nonsense is a substitute for a simple proposition: stop digging. There is only one form of carbon capture and storage that is scientifically proven, and which can be deployed immediately: leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Then there will be a complete phase-out of fossil-fuel extraction including compensation of the mining companies and retraining for the employees. Retraining for what? Monbiot doesn’t specify. What will we use to replace the fossil fuels? He doesn’t say- maybe a magical alternative fuel will just appear?

But later on the real point of his article becomes clear:

In Britain, for example, tax rebates for North Sea oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years the government is likely to give them around £5bn more than it receives in revenues. There are similar tax breaks for fracking companies – but not, of course, for renewable energy.

(Apparently, from what I can gather, fracking companies will only receive tax breaks for the exploratory phase, not the extractive phase, for which it will pay 30% tax, more than many industries; fracking will bring net revenue and jobs to the economy, not to mention cheaper fuel bills.)

In Monbiot’s world, we are to replace coal, oil and gas with…wind, mainly (solar in sunnier countries perhaps). The problem is, to replace these reliable and energy-dense fuels, with which we have constructed the entire modern world with all its amenities and benefits, with wind would require every bit as much “sorcery” as BECCS. Monbiot tells us BECCS will take an area 1 1/2 times the size of India, but gives us no details on how much land would be required for wind, or what other land uses it would compete with, or what environmental impact it would have: how many windfarms, where would they go, how much will it cost- and how does he propose to overcome the issue of intermittency, something which biomass at least does not have to contend with?  On these pressing issues, George is silent. It is as if his entire “alternative” energy policy consists of “replace fossil fuels with wind, The End.”

Fortunately, the sums have already been done on this, as I reported here, by Professor David McKay, who concluded that “Britain cannot live on its own renewables”. Monbiot however is relying on a report by Oil Change International, (OCI) which is based on projections created by Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, which are also used by Bil McKibben’s campaign in the US. Robert Bryce explains what the proposed 100% renewables scenario would look like for the US here:

McKibben, the founder of 350.org, and his friends are pushing would result in the despoliation of vast swaths of the American landscape. Indeed, it would require that an area the size of Texas and Louisiana combined be covered with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines.

OCI use Jacobson’s projection of 50% renewables by 2035. That is just 20 years away. Currently the world barely produces 5% of its energy from renewables. It is completely unfeasible, and even if attempted, would take many decades- there is no possible scenario even in your wildest dreams where we could build out the tens, hundreds of thousands of wind turbines that would be required by 2035. Grids find it very difficult to accommodate intermittent wind and solar once they go much above 30% supply; most countries are still a very long way from that, and that is just electricity- wind does nothing to replace oil for transport. And did I mention that the wind doesn’t blow all the time? Wind needs baseload for it to work, that currently means gas as the best option.

Perhaps even more curious, neither OCI nor Monbiot make any mention of nuclear power, the only conceivable low-carbon source that could replace fossil fuels- but even if there was an all-out program for nuclear new builds, it would also take decades to achieve. Despite having spoken up for the importance of nuclear in the past, Monbiot’s purpose in this piece seems to be nothing more than put forward an anti-fracking screed.

The article he links to which exposes the BECCS plan behind Paris relies on two other fairy-tale assumptions: energy efficiency, and the hubris of assuming that the poor who currently produce little of no emmissions- because they are poor- are content to stay that way:

But move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative opportunities for delivering the deep and early reductions in emissions necessary to stay within 2°C budgets come into focus. Demand-side technologies, behaviours and habits all are amenable to significant and rapid change – and guided by stringent policies could drive emissions down in the near-term. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of total emissions and the rate and scope of what is possible if we genuinely thought climate change was an important issue becomes evident.

Again, there is absolutely no evidence that “demand-side technologies” can achieve more than a cosmetic fraction of the kinds of emissions cuts the author is talking about. This can only mean one thing in reality: draconian energy rationing, and the complete and permanent denial of energy access to the bottom couple of billion who don’t currently have it. In practice, the developed world will ofcourse never accept energy rationing, so the world’s poor will have to carry the brunt of our climate policies.

Just as egregious is Monbiot’s tarring of all fossil fuels with the same brush, which only misleads and results in bad policy. Oil is used mainly for transport, treating it as if it is interchangeable with coal and gas- used mainly for electricity and heating – makes no sense. Gas has half the emissions of coal, and because it is so readily dispatchable, energy dense and available, can bring down CO2 emissions much faster than renewables by displacing coal. But Monbiot’s aim does not appear to be to actually reduce emissions, but merely to join McKibben’s bandwagon against fossil fuels in general and fracking in particular.

So, absolutely correct, the Paris targets will not be met under any plausible scenario. Should we still strive to reduce emissions as fast as possible? Sure- but not at any cost, and only if an equal goal is to ultimately provide energy access for all. The only realistic path to these twin goals is rapid displacement of coal, and also transport oil – with cleaner gas, and a long-term transition to nuclear power. Anything else truly is magical thinking.

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Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or nuclear power are extremely energy dense, perhaps delivering up to 1000W/m2- or 1-2 orders of magnitude greater.

Additionally, wind and solar are intermittent in that they only supply energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, and so would need a baseload back-up- typically natural gas- or a whole additional infrastructure of energy storage would be required, which is very expensive and the technology does not yet exist to do this at scale.

A third factor, which is a result of the first two, is the speed at which renewables can be deployed.

If decarbonisation is the goal, France decarbonised most of its electricity supply using nuclear power 6 times faster in the 1980s than the famous German Energiewende is achieving today:

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In MacKay’s last interview given to Mark Lynas shortly before his death (below), he is very outspoken about the lack of energy literacy applied to energy policy, leading to dangerous delusions:

there’s so much delusion, it’s so dangerous for humanity that people allow themselves to have such delusions, that they are willing to not think carefully about the numbers, and the reality of the laws of physics and the reality of engineering….humanity does need to pay attention to arithmetic ad the laws of physics.

He goes on to lament the emergence of a new delusion- that the  drop in price of solar and wind in recent years signifies a greater capacity for them to replace fossil fuels- but calculates that price would have to come down by a factor of 100 to make much difference (for battery storage also)- and even if they were free, they would still be just as costly in terms of land-use. Dream on…

Solar and wind can still play a role perhaps, in sunnier parts of the world, but is likely to remain relatively small. Although fossil fuels have dropped slightly in terms of their total share of supply to the UK, they still supply 85% of our power.

Meanwhile, in Germany they are also busy closing the largest supplier of low-carbon energy they have, and one would be forgiven in thinking that the decarbonisation agenda is really just a smoke-screen to facilitate the  traditional Green anti-nuclear agenda.

To replace fossil fuels, the only option is to move forward to a more energy dense fuel, not one that is 100 times more diffuse and intermittent to boot. Based on arithmetic, rather than ideology, in the foreseeable future that can only mean nuclear power.

If you are interested in honouring the legacy of David MacKay and would like to include arithmetic and basic engineering to promote a realistic energy policy, you can do worse than to start with reading his book, or if you prefer, watching his talk from 2010: