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Mean, not green: military leveraging of clean-energy

February 23rd, 2018 · 1 Comment

Various military forces around the world have adopted a variety of energy efficiency and clean-energy approaches, from how they run permanent bases to experiments with fueling combat equipment with biofuels.  With reason, many of those concerned about a clean-energy future and the need to take action to mitigate human-driven climate change have embraced these. While there are substantive reasons to point to the military’s embrace of clean-energy, in no small part because military forces are powerful interest groups in essentially every nation and are among the most respected institution in many nations, too often people mistakenly make a leap from military leveraging clean energy to ‘they are climate warriors’.  “Green” rhetoric from militaries, such as former U.S. Secretary of the Navy’s promotion of the “Great Greeen Fleet” and the Danish “Green Defence Strategy“, did nothing to assuage the mistaken impression that militaries were somehow ‘going green to be green’.

While there are, in many military forces, elements and individuals who do wish to see climate action, who do care about reducing environmental impacts, to view military efficiency and clean-energy moves through this lens truly misses the boat. These measures need to be viewed from a utilitarian lens: improving capabilities; reducing costs; and reducing risks.

And, a clear-headed look will never forgot a core reality: military forces are, at their essence, about destroying things and killing people. Military forces are the absolute embodiment of the state’s monopoly on power.  Everything else about militaries is simply a LIC: lesser-included case of this fundamental reality.

To understand this intersection, that clean-energy is about capabilities, costs, and reduced risks and not, principally, about improving environmental footprints for footprint, it is useful to look at a case where renewable energy is integrated into an environmentally destructive military activity.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese are on a building spree — creating artificial islands with essentially zero regard to the havoc this construction is having on fragile reefs and the environment.

China has spent years building military outposts on a group of contested islands in the South China Sea — a project that has left the country at odds with many of its neighbors and the United States.

First, there was the dredging, in which ships sucked sediment from the seabed and pumped it atop formerly undeveloped reefs. Then came the buildings — once said to be for civilian purposes but which analysts now say are small military installations — followed quickly by international uproar.

But the building continued. Now, some of the islands that are part of the group known as the Spratlys, where China began large-scale development in 2013, have been transformed from barren reefs into military outposts

These military facilities are a highly provocative move to expand (de facto) Chinese territory (to control resources and for military purposes) and, in any decent interpretation out there, in violation of international law and of agreements with other nations (ASEAN).

The above were already well known and established facts. Recently released photos make public many previously unknown details. The Philippine Daily Inquirer‘s exclusive story had a number of photos of the facilities, annotated about details.  Look at the photo below and consider the point of this post.

Photo: Philippine Daily Inquirer

Note that clean energy, the wind turbines … those clean electrons that are ever so good for the planet or, well, … And, it isn’t just wind turbines …

Facilities here include a small port, two helipads, three possible satellite communication antennae, two possible radar towers, six possible security and surveillance towers for weapons, four possible weapons towers, a lighthouse, a solar farm and two wind turbines, AMTI says.

The Chinese military (whether the PLA or the PLAN) did not put wind turbines solar panels these constructed islands out of some good-hearted desire to be environmentally friendly. A reminder: these are incredibly destructive projects, with dredging through and concrete covering fragile reefs.

Islands are on the leading edge for renewable energy as the standard electricity supply is from diesel generators — between the raw cost of the fuel, the transport, and storage, the FBCE (full-burdened cost of energy/electricity) for diesel generators on islands can often exceed $0.50 per kilowatt hour or roughly 5x what it costs on, for example, the US mainland electricity grid.

For military forces, more importantly, that fuel delivery creates risks — a logistics pipeline that can be disrupted by natural (storms) events or attacked by adversaries amid conflict.

Thus, putting wind turbines (and, it seems to be, solar panels as well) on these constructed military base islands has almost certainly (little to) nothing to do with “green” and everything to do with cutting costs and reducing risks (increasing capbilities).

And, if the wind turbines are there for ‘greening’ purposes/credit somehow within the Chinese system, they are tiny greenwashing cherries placed on top of massive environmental damage.

The basic point:

  • Military forces — at their core — are about killing people and destroying things.
    • Yes, they can do other things: maintain civil order, provide disaster relief, enforce laws (interdict smugglers), … But, these are LIC (lesser included cases) enabled by buying/building/maintaining forces that can kill people and destroy things.
  • Renewable energy and energy efficiency are valued most by military forces when they (directly or indirectly) strengthen the force’s ability to do those things.
    • E.g.,  the military has a job to do, and if renewable energy helps them to do it, then they’re all for it.

In short, renewable energy and energy efficiency are NOT about ‘green’ or some sort of environmental activism but are paths to strengthen the military forces.

The power, however, of military adoption of clean energy paths remains important, however, for moving forward to a more sensible energy future. Not because they are “green hippies” but explicitly because military organizations (writ large) are not. They are utilitarian and increasingly find that going ‘clean’ makes them more effective at a lower-cost than the polluting energy options. This clear utility model for clean energy is increasingly true across economies and societies.

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Also in from CPAC: Fascists, NRA, Trump-istas … and coal enthusiasts

February 23rd, 2018 · No Comments

The CPAC meeting has become a gathering of the worst of American and, sigh, global society. Whether white supremacists, gun lunatics, or science deniers, this is a ground central for those enamored with the Trump kakistocracy* and the destruction it is reigning on the United States and humanity.

From CPAC emerges glimpses of the immoral, unethical, corrupt, authoritarian threads that have taken control of “conservative” American politics.  Whether the hosting of French fascist Marion Maréchal-Le Pen or the rantings of the NRA president, thinking people can’t think seriously about CPAC without getting sick to the stomach.

Amid all this comes news about the heartless Heartland Institute, a leader purveyor of climate/tobacco/pesticides science denial gibberish and go-to space for Trump-ista ‘science’ policy concepts.

Heartland announced an initiative to battle the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign,

“We want to make the future as the past was. We are here because of coal, and we need it going forward,” said Fred Palmer, a Heartland fellow who previously worked as an executive at Peabody Energy Corp., America’s largest publicly traded coal company.

Consider that, consider CPAC, consider #MAGA … “we want to make the future as the past was …”

Amid massive technological advances that offer innumerable opportunities for improving economies and societies, Heartland is directly stating that the past is where they want to take us (the US).

There is a simple reality that is lost to many. Donald Trump likes to express his love for miners. While that affirmation of love is likely simply because he ‘loves’ anyone who expresses adoration for him, he cannot deliver.

  • First, for decades, the key objective of mining companies is to get miners out of mining.  From mountain-top removal to huge automated machines in strip mines, fewer miner hours are required for every ton removed.
  • Secondly, even more importantly, coal is dead — even as the pollution continues, virtually every single day brings bad news for coal (e.g., good news for humanity).

Did you know that with Trump in his second year of Oval Office occupation, that coal power plants are being retired at a faster rate in the United States than during President Barack Obama’s Administration. This has nothing to do with some sort of fantasized US government ‘war on coal’ and climate action but everything to do with economics:

“The economics for coal just aren’t working anymore… Coal is not competitive with clean energy anymore, even in Missouri. That’s what regulators will listen to.”

Take a look at real-world bids in ‘coal’ country.

  • It is half the price to buy new solar and wind electricity (even with storage) than it is to build new coal plants.
  • It is cheaper to buy new solar and wind electricity (even with storage) than it is to run existing coal plants.
    • And, by the way, those coal numbers will get worse — the older the plant, the more expensive it becomes due to maintenance and repairs (even without considering upgrades to meet new regulatory requirements).

Those economics are driving change … change to the future not back to a polluting past.

If Heartland’s influence has increased in Washington, the weight of its arguments is on the wane in C-room suites.

Power companies have retired a third of America’s coal-generating capacity since 2010, …

For a perspective, of the coal fleet in 2010, over 50 percent has been retired or is slated for retirement in the near future.

In February alone, two major Midwestern utilities announced plans to dramatically cut back coal generation and replace the retired units with natural gas and renewables. Consumers Energy, a Michigan utility, said this week it will eliminate coal from its fuel mix by 2040. That followed an announcement by American Electric Power Co. that it intends to slash its emissions 80 percent of 2000 levels by midcentury, in part by reducing its coal use.

And in Texas, where power generators are retiring some 4 gigawatts of coal capacity this year, researchers expect wind power to overtake coal as the state’s second largest provider of electricity next year. Texas is the largest domestic market for coal used to generate electricity.

As to Texas,

The simple reality:

Coal is taking a 1-2-3 punch in the market,”

Heartland is fighting against reality. They are fighting to weaken the US electricity system, to drive higher prices into the US economy, weaken US competitiveness, kill Americans through increased coal pollution, and worsen our climate challenges. Truly, a wonderful agenda for patriotic Americans to pursue.

Truth be told, Heartland — and its fossil-fuel sponsors — will manage to put sand into the gears to move the nation Beyond Coal. They will confuse the system with deceptive analysis, find sympathetic utility commissioners so enamored with Trump-ism that they will buy into higher-cost electricity for their consumers and communities, and otherwise make the work of moving the US energy system into a more efficient, more reliable, more globally competitive, and cleaner future that much harder.

* Kakistocracy: Government by the least ethical, least principled, least competent of society.


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Discontinuity critical for ‘tale of two technologies’ (nuclear, solar) and a clean-energy future

February 21st, 2018 · No Comments

Nuclear power was going to provide electricity ‘too cheap to meter’.  Many around the world, decades ago (many today), viewed peaceful nuclear power as the path forward to, well, solve more or less all the world’s problems.  While nuclear power provides over 10 percent of the world’s electricity, those dreams remained dreams (if not utter fantasies).

Today, many are looking to solar energy’s plunging prices and are already analyzing ‘what can you do with it when it becomes too cheap to meter’. There are many who see solar as the path to, well, solve more or less all the world’s problems (from monopoly power to climate change to economic disparity to …).  As solar provides little more than 1 percent of the world’s electricity, many see these dreams as little more than fantasies (even as many see them as reality coming at us at full speed).

An interesting set of parallels which suggests that there might be value to exploring these two low-carbon electricity sources for potential lessons — technical, business, financial, communications, and policy.  This is a conversation that Varun Sivaram opened with A Tale of Two Technologies: What nuclear’s past might tell us about solar’s future.

While quite interesting to read, this interesting read is also quite troubling.

For example, in this ‘tale of two technologies’, Sivaram raises a concern that solar power’s pace of penetration could stall, perhaps combined solar and wind electricity plateauing (hitting a penetration ceiling) in the 10 percent of total electricity demand, and thus cripple our chances to achieve a climate-friendly energy system.  Core to this, for Sivaram, is ‘value deflation’, with solar’s value (financial and in energy terms) falling with greater penetration as its production is limited to just a few hours per day and thus a high-solar penetration grid could have solar providing more than 100% of demand as the sun shines and zero percent in the night. While mentioned, Sivaram gives short-shrift to all of the developments (policy, business model, technical) to address this very set of challenges — from pricing to drive time-shifting demand; to larger grid interconnections to move power across regions; to smart devices; to a variety of storage options ranging from electric cars to Tesla Powerwalls to new pumped hydro storage to a range of technical leap-forward opportunities (such as in hydrogen production and storage).

Sivaram also asserts (okay, concludes from his research) that nuclear and solar are natural — necessary — partners for a low-carbon future. In short, that nuclear power can easily flex to meet electricity demands when solar isn’t producing.  Clearly, this point is at odds with how nuclear power currently operates: baseload power that is rather inflexible in terms of ramping up and ramping down production to meet short-cycle demand signals. While it is possible to develop nuclear power systems that can work effectively at just a few hours a day at full output and much of the day sitting idle, this simply doesn’t reflect the operating realities of the world’s nuclear power plants.

Sivaram raises concerns that solar could be locked into a less-than-optimal silicon based technology for a number of reasons.  For example, Sivaram looks at investments in solar R&D, highlighting that the cutthroat nature of the Chinese firms fighting for market share has fostered a very low level (1 percent) of internal investment. He also discusses how market conditions could create lock-out for new market entry. With that, he raises a parallel for how Admiral Rickover’s choice of light-water reactors locked out alternatives from the nuclear power marketplace.

Sivaram’s piece is intriguing with the call to look at the parallels with nuclear power for lessons to strengthen solar’s future; even amid disagreement it sparked thinking. When doing analogies, however, a critical tool is to make sure and clear not just continuity but also discontinuity, to foster understanding of where/why the analogy might fall short. To a certain extent, Sivaram does this as per these paragraphs:

The two energy sources are complementary — intermittent solar power that only works when the sun shines will likely come to depend on the reliability of nuclear energy to balance out its fluctuations in a decarbonized electricity system. Both are necessary for a global clean energy transition. And only by learning the lessons from nuclear’s meltdown can solar avoid its own.

This isn’t an obvious comparison. Accidents, activists, and ascending costs have plagued nuclear, stymieing plans for new reactors across the developed world. From this perspective, the history of nuclear power has very little to do with how the future of solar power might unfold. It’s hard to imagine a solar farm melting down and inciting an equivalent political backlash as was seen after Fukushima, for instance, while the costs of solar have steadily fallen and will likely continue to decline.

This, however, falls seriously short of laying out discontinuities such as:

  • Scalability
    • a solar panel is a panel, whether next to a yurt off the grid or with 10,000s in a multi-mw field.
    • in commercial applications, nuclear power plants are measured in 100s of megawatts to gigawatts and, despite some great cartoons, aren’t deployed to power cars or provide lights on camping trips.
  • Generations / evolutionary time scale
    • the time between nuclear power plant generations is, essentially, well over a decade. There is learning and development, but it is slow and long-term.
    • solar power systems, when considered what is deploying around the world, are changing rapidly. What is ‘deployed’ one year might be, at least in some components, obsolete the next.
    • ANALOGY: an appropriate analogy here might be evolutionary: nuclear power is large mammals and solar might be insects. Solar power might have orders-of-magnitude more ‘generations’ with innovation and learning than nuclear power. (In this analogy, information technology (software) might be bacteria …)
  • Learning curve/speed:
    • due to scale and generation time, nuclear learning curves for reduced costs take long time and are constrained (if they are ever achieved).
    • solar’s curve is steep, with rapid change and innovation across its systems.
  • Risks as factor
    • Nuclear power is, inherently, a high-risk endeavor with very serious safety concerns. Every single component is (or at least should be) seriously studied and tested as part of a system-of-systems, which slows innovation and raises development costs.
    • Solar is relatively low-risk domain and components (whether racks, wires, monitors, panels, etc …) can be developed with relative independence from developments from other components.
  • Security/Political Constraints:
    • due to security (weapons/proliferation and outright safety) issues, nuclear power is highly ‘constrained’ and controlled (regulatory, political, treaty).
    • solar is a wide-open space, with very limited constraints on technological development and transfusion.
  • Market entry
    • Nuclear has limited ‘innovator’s dilemma’-like market entry options (Navy ships (CVN/SSN/SSBNs) perhaps the clearest one) to prove new technologies, to enter in small scale in market-valuable ways to prove commercially and reduce risk..
    • Solar can carve out from high-cost markets (islands, off-grid, high-cost markets) and can be introduced at small scale en route path for innovation.
      • And, as per technology components above, it is very easy to demonstrate new components to enable ‘piecemeal’ innovation that is an element of the over industry’s dizzying innovation path.
      • And, people can take equipment from a lab and test it in real-world conditions without much bureaucratic challenge and at (relatively) low cost.
  • Competitive landscape:
    • Nuclear power has relatively few players, with about a dozen serious players globally (Russian, Chinese, European, American) who have the designs for and capacity to construct a nuclear power plant.
    • Solar has a raft of players. While panels are dominated by a relative few, these panel producers don’t control inverter options, control systems, racking, storage, installation, and other components of the solar eco-system.

When considering the serious nature of discontinuities between nuclear power and solar power, the case for the analogy seems weakened.  It is still of interest to see if parallels and lessons exist, but these discontinuities suggest serious caution in drawing those lessons. With that caution in mind, read Sivaram’s Tale of Two Technologies as a tool to understanding how to better strengthen the potential for a clean-energy future.

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Here comes the sun … even as Virginia continues to straggle when it comes to solar

February 14th, 2018 · No Comments

Former Governor Terry McAuliffe exclaimed, more than once, that Virginia was a true leader in solar power, with growth rates that should amaze one and all.  While McAuliffe deserves credit for a number of actions, recognizing the reality of a GOP run legislature and heavy Dominion Power opposition to solar, reality didn’t seem to match the rhetoric.

Pulling back the curtains on Virginia solar left one scratching one’s head trying to figure out the justification for this.  Yes, there was growth — primarily because of two things: the starting point (due in no small part to Dominion Virginia Power (primarily) working its magic in the legislature to suppress solar) was so low; and major players (such as Amazon data centers and universities) demanding solar (often, as with Amazon, as part of their choice to develop in Virginia). McAuliffe pointed to high percentage growth and then pointed to all the potential projects in the pipeline with wording that would make most casual observers think that those ‘maybe’ projects were done deals and, well, perhaps even already generating electrons. Show-barker exclamations, however, didn’t represent the reality of Virginia’s renewable energy world.

As Powered by Facts, a group heavily involved in supporting legislative movement toward a clean(er) Virginia energy future, explained in a January 2018 report.

Virginia now has 290.89 megawatts (MW) of solar installed, which represents approximately .037% of its total electricity generated. This is an increase from last year’s total of 192.4 MW, and represents the state moving more than half of the way towards Dominion’s goal of building facilities to generate 400 MW of solar energy by 2020. Despite the increase in MW, Virginia’s national ranking for solar and renewable energy slipped from 17th in 2016 to 20th in 2017. This indicates that other states have embraced this highly competitive industry and are reaping its rewards, while Virginia has lagged behind. Our state also ranks 13th in growth projections for the next five years

While ’20th’ rank of current status with 13th in growth might not seem so bad, putting Virginia in the upper half of the 51 states and DC, we shouldn’t be fooled into any form of complacency.

Each year Solar Power Rocks, a firm that focuses on helping homeowners and small businesses go solar, analyzes those 51 as to solar attractiveness for those potential customers.

The Solar Power Rocks 2018 Solar Power Ranking

In the 2018 ranking, as in 2017, Virginia is ranked 38th and earns a merited D.

Virginia, 38th in nation

“Solar in Virginia: about as bad as you might think!” The state’s big utility company, Dominion Power, offers an anemic performance payments program, which will help homeowners now but isn’t guaranteed to be there in a few years. All in all, the “D” grade is earned …

How Virginia earns its D

With the exception of relatively smooth connection into the grid and straightforward net metering rules, there isn’t much good news as to Virginia solar as ‘the’ system continues to favor polluting centralized energy over distributed, clean-energy.

The troubling  (for many reasons)  energy legislation that has passed (in two variations) the Virginia House and Senate offers a potential breakthrough when it comes to solar. Within the legislation is a declaration that 4,000 megawatts of utility-scale and 500 megawatts of distributed solar (though, owned/operated by utility …) is in the public interest. While this is overly weighted toward large systems (roughly, in the United States, 1/3rd of total solar deployment is in under 1 megawatt systems), overwhelming favorable to the utilities, and the devil will certainly be in the details, this is viewed as creating an agreed-upon based objective that would increase Virginia’s solar electric resources by more than an order of magnitude in less than a decade.  If the legislative and regulatory changes are made to enable this to become reality, perhaps Virginia’s report card might be a bit better and Terry McAuliffe’s claims about Virginia solar might just become substantive reality.



The Solar Power Rocks annual report is a quite useful tool to compare the states in terms of their market attractiveness for small solar installations. Utility can range from the purchaser trying to understand their potential return on investment (ROI) to the activist/legislator seeking to understand where/how they could focus to improve the solar situation in their own state/community.  So, to be clear, kudos and thanks for the Solar Power Rocks team for doing this.

There are, however, issues where this summary could mislead.  For example, when it comes to that ROI, the annual report card fails to include several (potentially) financially important items that improve the ROI:

  • Solar installations increase home value and sales prices.
    • Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBL) analysis of actual market activity found that solar installations have a significant impact on home sales prices. In California, a $4 increase for every watt installed and elsewhere in the nation about $3 per watt.  Thus, install a house with a 5 kilowatt system would have an increased sales price in the range of $15k-$20k.
    • In ‘the community’, there has been a general rule of thumb that there is a $10 increased sales price for every $1 of energy savings. That rule of thumb helps account for differing electricity prices and allows evaluating solar hot water systems as well.
      • To take my home system, my savings are about $700/year from solar pv and perhaps $150/year from solar hot water, the two systems combined should boost the sales price in the range of $8-$9k.)
  • Solar installations can increase roof longevity and save money on replacement.
  • Some insurers will reduce home insurance costs due to lower hail damage to roofs that have solar installations. (Note that this is relatively minor. An acquaintance in Maryland who is in process of doing a solar installation has been quoted a $8.23 annual reduction in his home-owners’ insurance.)

The ROI evaluation, therefore, almost certainly is too pessimistic.

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Seriously, what is the @WashingtonPost doing?

February 13th, 2018 · No Comments

Evidently enraptured by the glowing reviews that the New York Times hiring of (climate) science dissembler (amid other problems) columnist Bret Stephens generated, The Washington Post opinion section just added ‘both sides’ specialist Meghan McArdle to their pages.  McArdle often reads as if emergent from Koch Industries public relations.

A few quick examples:

About London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy,

Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist who thought it’d be a good idea to “‘well yeah but” a literal towering inferno.” McArdle’s subhead reveals why people are aghast at the heartlessness of her piece: “Perhaps safety rules could have saved some residents. But at what cost to others’ lives? There’s always a trade-off.”

Don’t bother reading the rest–it’s not worth the time or headache. But do remember this callous indifference to human life next time she writes a defense of Exxon or condemnation of climate “alarmists.”

As that Koch comment above, it isn’t casually suggested.  First, when it comes to Grenfell, McArdle’s piece did read like it came from the Koch PR office. But, more broadly, the Koch-McArdle ties are real:

McArdle’s views are probably never going to differ from those of the Koch brothers, for a number of reasons. While she’’s been a columnist for a while at respectable outlets like Bloomberg and even the left-leaning Atlantic, her Koch-nections run deep.

For one, she’s married to Peter Suderman, who, before becoming features editorat Koch-funded Reason Magazine, worked for the Koch’s Freedomworks and CEI. We’ll give McArdle the benefit of the doubt that her husband’s paycheck has nothing to do with her opinions and is only an unusual coincidence.

This ‘benefit of the doubt’ does matter. While one might scratch one’s head, one should not damn someone due to what a member of their family does without other supporting details.

However, a look at McArdle’s professional history shows significant Koch influence. … impressively in-depth list of McArdle’s conflicts of interest … begin with her training at the Koch’s Institute for Humane Studies journalism program, to which she returned in 2011 as a guest lecturer and instructor. … McArdle is also a frequent attendee and moderator of Koch-network events, including her duties MCing the 50th anniversary of the Institute for Humane Studies, and was praised by them for her work “re-branding the Republican party.

Seriously, Washington Post, what are you doing?  Do you really think that your readership wants a(nother) Koch-Brothers mouthpiece gracing the pages? You already have Krauthammer, Will, Samuelson, and too many other fossil fools eating up column inches.  Or, is the issue that they are PMS (pale, male, and stale) fossil fuel shills and you are seeking to change the demographics in that climate-denial, anti-government, deceiving pool of authors?

UPDATE: McArdle’s hire has caught others’ attention.  At Paste, Jason Rhodes Megan McArdle Is the Poster Child for Failing Upward in America is a must read for anyone concerned about journalism and how The Washington Post‘s hiring of her degrades the paper.

Paste does not publish wedding announcements. However, there’s an exception to every rule. Today, we congratulate the Koch Brothers and the Washington Post on their new marriage. Libertarian Megan McArdle—a lifelong friend to the Koch empire—was just welded to the Washington Post’s Opinion page. The Post’s new motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” We’ve all been misreading that statement. It wasn’t a warning, but a threat. And there’s no darkness visible like Megan McArdle.

I promise I’m not overstating the problem, as the doctor said to the corpse. McArdle’s biography can be written in one sentence: a shallow, mean rich kid is hired by billionaires to abuse poor people and praise kitchen implements. Every detail about her existence can be folded up like origami into that single statement, the way the whole Christian religion is contained in John 3:16.

And, in terms of understanding yet another way in which the Post‘s hiring of McArdle merits questioning, what about basic journalistic ethics:

According to SusanOfTexas, McArdle happened to leave The Atlantic “right after she was caught lying by omission on her conflict-of-interest disclosures, leaving out or underplaying most of her extensive connections to Koch-created and fed institutions.”

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→ No CommentsTags: journalism · Right Wing Sound Machine (RWSM) · SciComm · Science Communication · science denial · Washington Post

When “fast facts” aren’t truthful, aren’t factual …

February 12th, 2018 · No Comments

Axios is a Washington creation in the media culture. Well-funded and (extremely) well-promoted, it seems targeted at influencing influencers. Core to the overall approach seems to be a ‘#bothsiderism” approach, to present both sides of a political issue typically without stating how “one side” is simply outside the realm of truthfulness and that the “political” both sides doesn’t exist in a real-world analysis. Axios’ sound-byte level approach (where an 800-word post is long) contributes to this as complexity is harder to deal with in tweet-like pieces. Obviously, the clearest case comes with trying to ‘bridge the divide’ on climate change, presenting Donald Trump and Republican alternative facts (un)reality as ‘one side’ and presenting those confronting reality as the other.

The 31 January launch of the “Fossil Free Fast” movement has caught the attention of Axios’ Amy Harder as seen in several recent pieces focused on ‘climate change’ which each take a “both sides” balancing of this activist movement against others — whether against Republican science denialists or centrist (somewhat “All of the Above”) Democratic politicians resisting incorporating a true understanding of climate risks and climate mitigation possibilities into policy concepts and approaches.

The second is today’s edition.

America’s Democratic Party, environmental groups and clean-energy leaders pushing action on climate change are at odds over how best to address it.

Harder’s the left’s civil war over climate change focuses on “how large a role renewable energy should play in America’s future energy mix,”. This 873 word piece has many troubling aspects. The following highlights just a few.

Harder sets the stage with “Fast Facts” that have elements that are ‘factual’ but, well, not truthful in the context of the discussion.

  • Natural gas and coal power almost two-thirds of U.S. electricity.

Okay, fact … Yet, this totally obscures rapidly changing electricity generation world.

  • Coal was over 50 percent of US electricity less than a decade ago and is rapid (and continuing) decline. Coal’s share of total electricity is down roughly 10 percent over the past decade.
  • Coal has been displaced primarily by natural gas but, as well, by the exponential growth in wind and solar electricity capacity and generation.
    • And, well, enabled by efficiency/relatively flat electricity demand which means new clean electrons can drive out dirty electrons from the grid.

The Changing Electricity World: The 2010s: Rapid growth in natural gas and solar/wind, rapid decline in coal generation

  • Nuclear power provides 60% of carbon-free electricity in the U.S.

Yes, fact again … yet, again a misleading representation.  That “60%” represents a rapidly falling figure with well-over 70% being reality about a decade ago.  Now, the falling is two-fold: due to the rapid growth in wind and solar driving up the total clean electrons in the grid and increasing retirements of nuclear power plants due to, in many cases, negative economic conditions for nuclear power.  While not embracing shutting nuclear power plants for those economic conditions (with a reasonable carbon price, this issue would essentially disappear from the market), this “fast fact” again obscures an important dynamic element of the US energy/electricity situation.

This isn’t solely about facts obscuring but about getting “facts” wrong along with obscuring. The bullet following the coal/natural gas bullet is:

  • Nearly 15% is from renewables: half each from hydropower and wind, less than 1% from solar.

Yes, fact that “nearly 15%” but that obscures that that share is up roughly 50 percent in the past decade and with that share of total electricity accelerating. (Of that 15%, roughly half is hydropower which has paths to (significant) expansion but has been roughly flat along with other slower growing low-carbon electricity (like geothermal) that also have potential for growth but are not rapidly changing. The other half is the rapidly growing wind and solar, which account for essentially all of renewable energy’s growth in share of total US electrons.)

  • … less than 1% from solar.

As to not getting something right, “less than 1% from solar” is not right even if it was true not that long ago.

For those who don’t follow these things closely, there was long a problem with how EIA accumulated data.  While people have small fossil fuel generators (diesel, natural gas, propane), these are relatively small in the electricity market and typically don’t interact directly with the grid. (This is more ‘backup generator’ rather than steady producer.)  Tracking all of these small to very small systems was, well, nigh impossible (within any reasonable concept of data gathering) and viewed as not that important for understanding US energy demand and usage.  For solar, however, the small matters far more — and that ‘small’ (e.g., rooftop and other small installations) typically does (via net metering) interacts directly with and continuously (365 days/year) with the larger electricity grid.  When finally analyzing this, EIA determine that roughly 1/3rd of US solar was such small systems and by starting to count it back in 2016, US solar production jump 50% in a heart-beat and leaped past 1 percent of total generation.

Overall for 2016, wind supplied 5.6 percent of generation, utility-scale solar contributed 0.9 percent, and small-scale solar about 0.5 percent, for a cumulative total of 7 percent.

The exponential growth of wind and solar electricity generation

In any event, the “<1%” framing certainly implies ‘this really doesn’t matter because it is so small” and falls into the canard of ‘it is only X percent’.

Framing a discussion with “Fast Facts” that aren’t truthful to the issue and aren’t necessarily even factual for readers who simply don’t have the time or inclination to look past them inherently fosters a distorted perspective on presentation of “both sides”.

Note/Update: A twitter quick look:

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The Gigafactory’s new neighbor: Gigawatt

February 8th, 2018 · No Comments

Gigawatt Nevada
Switch’s vision Greens the Desert in a Different Way

Telecommunications firm Switch just announced plans for the largest U.S. solar installation: a gigawatt solar farm in Nevada. Not only will, with this attention capturing number, this Gigawatt installation be twice the largest existing US solar facility, the Switch Gigawatt project will deliver electricity to consumers at very low prices:

Customers will pay $0.049/kWh, an average all-in rate the company says includes NV Energy’s distribution charges.


(Not surprisingly, this project is pricing well below what EIA projects for solar pricing for years to come.)

Let’s recognize that the US Southwest should be one of the Saudi Arabia’s of solar. Along with locations like the Chilean desert, the extremely good solar conditions beg for solar installation. (As well, these desert areas are also challenged in water resources and, unlike fossil fuel systems, solar pv plants require minimal water.)  Just prior to learning of this project, I was discussing with someone that a key reason for Musk to locate the Gigafactory where it is are almost certainly these solar resources: that the battery factory would have access to essentially unlimited solar resources with ever decreasing electricity prices.

“The foundation of Gigawatt Nevada is that Nevada should harness the sun the same way Alaska harnesses its oil to significantly benefit all Nevadans,” Rob Roy said.  “Nevada enjoys the best solar window in the nation and so we Nevadans should not only be using solar for ourselves, but exporting it throughout the Western U.S. to create new jobs, tax revenue, economic diversification, and raise energy independence.”

Switch is truly a leader in the industry — driving sustainability in data centers (leading edge efficiency plus 100% sourcing of clean electricity requirements). As to that sustainability, a Greenpeace perspective (from the Switch press release):

“Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that we must move to renewable energy as rapidly as possible, but many monopoly utilities continue to hold us back from making this transition,” said Gary Cook, Senior IT Sector Analyst and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace.  “Gigawatt 1 shows that when Switch and other leading companies don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, they can work together and kick open the door to large scale sources of renewable energy that are better for the planet, and better for the economy in Nevada.”

Greenpeace awarded Switch all A grades, in its most recent Clicking Clean Report, noting Switch “scored among the highest for any class of company and is the definitive leader among colocation operators for its efforts to transition its data center fleet to renewables as fast as possible through a combination of renewable energy procurement and aggressive advocacy.”[2]

And, Switch is leveraging this for increased profitability and competitive advantage.

Roy is also a leader in the business community in seeing — and pushing forward — how leveraging the Southwest US desert region as the Saudi Arabia of solar will foster new, dynamic economic opportunities.  Switch had already developed a 179MW Nevada solar system to meet its own needs. This gigawatt will go well beyond that, with a range of potential other major firms sourcing clean electrons from this project.

Clean, however, could well be a lesser-included condition for business decision-making when it comes to these electrons.  While the commercial rates are, at this time, publicly unavailable, look at the project’s offer for delivered kilowatt hours to an average retail customer:

The current “dirty” price for electrons: 12 cents per kilowatt hour. Switch has announced that it will offer the electricity at 4.9 cents per kilowatt hour … delivered to your house.  That is nearly a 60% cost savings. Ask yourself a simple question: why would you not choose to save 60% on an otherwise fixed cost? And, by the way, feel better about yourself (due to going clean solar) at the same time?

Even while this project will benefit from soon to be phased out solar benefits, this is an extraordinary next step in the clear reality of plunging solar prices and how clean energy options are pricing out other electricity sources increasingly across the world.

Consider these prices — even with various tax benefits, this project almost certainly is penciled out to produce (at utility-scale) electricity at under 4 and potentially under 3 cents per kilowatt hour.  When Secretary Steve Chu, Obama’s first Secretary of Energy, started the SunShot program, the (seemingly overly-ambitious) goal was for 5 cent per kilowatt hour utility-scale solar by 2020.  The Gigawatt Solar project in Nevada shows how the real world is blowing through that objective.

While Roy and Switch see this project as boosting the Nevada economy, it should also serve as a signpost that economic planning globally should more seriously take into account the Energy (r)Evolution implications of plunging prices of solar, wind, storage, and other related clean/smart energy options.  With the “Shale Revolution”, with dramatically lower natural gas prices with massive new US supplies, this created new market opportunities and enabled energy-intensive industries to move projects into the United States. The Gigawatt project provides another market on the path toward utility scale solar below 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour. With that sort of pricing, industry after industry will start following the sun — fertilizer production (using electrons to crack water), aluminum (and other metals) refining, data centers, and the list is endless.  Cleaner electrons aren’t, anymore, desirable as simply a ‘social good’ but as an outright economic advantage as a less-expensive (and nearly without price fluctuation risk) electricity option.

Regretfully, it seems that the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) doesn’t read press releases as the just-released Annual Energy Outlook 2018 (and, well, essentially every other report they produce) doesn’t give a window for planners (government, business, otherwise) as to the clean energy (r)evolution’s potential impacts on the US (and global) economy).

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New EIA forecast subtitled: We are EFFed …

February 6th, 2018 · 1 Comment

The latest Energy Information Administration (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook has been released and one’s hope, on first glance, is that this forecast is just as off as so much of energy forecasting has been because, if this is accurate, the simplest summary of this might be:

The United States and humanity is EFFed when it comes to an opportunity to mitigate climate change through reduced energy emissions.

The critiques of EIA forecasting abound (see short bibliography here). Adam Scott well captured the situation last September in discussing the just-released International Energy Outlook (IEO).

Should EIA forecasts come with a warning label? (Courtesy: Price of Oil)

the EIA has made a routine out of releasing unrealistic, distorted, and dangerous outlooks on the future of global energy demand. These projections should come with a warning label.

Now, a forecast is that — an effort, with a set of assumptions, to delineate what the future might portend. Recognizing that forecasting is, well, hard and that there will always be errors, the question is how to leverage forecasting work. What is truly useful, in such endeavors, is to have multiple looks (scenarios) with seeking to understand what commonalities exist across scenarios, what assumptions drive change, and key uncertainties. Understanding those, rather than having a projection of oil production to three decimal points a decade from now, helps planning and investment across society. Leveraging a specific scenario forecast (typically the ‘baseline’) as core to investment decision-making creates (significant) risk (see GE troubles as evidence case #1) and failures to have an appropriate range of scenarios to span plausible futures also creates significant risk.

On first review of the WEO’s 54 page summary, striking elements include:

  • In contrast to what has occurred over the past decade,
    • after a decade of decline, carbon emissions are projected to increase steadily through 2050;
    • reversing significant decline, coal use is projected to rebound somewhat and remain stable through 2050.
    • carbon intensity (how much pollution per dollar of economic output) improvements slow.
      • as do essentially all trend lines favorable to a clean energy future.
  • Seemingly ‘between the lines’ efforts to satisfy/engage Trump Administration bias and priorities
    • While “carbon” and “carbon dioxide” are in the report along with discussions related to the Clean Power plan, “climate change” and “global warming” are terms absent from the report. (Why does “carbon” matter if …?)
    • Coal’s future is more constrained because of “as a result of supportive policies for renewables compared with coal” [page 16] rather than a more honest reality that coal, increasingly, simply can’t compete with clean electricity options (solar and wind, primarily) and natural gas.
      • Note that the same bullet asserts that there “favorable market conditions for natural gas” and nothing is evident along these lines in relation to how wind/solar prices are plummeting and thus there are “favorable market conditions” for these electricity options.
  • A bizarrely aggressive forecast as to nuclear power pricing, suggesting roughly a 50 percent drop in “advanced nuclear” project pricing in the coming five years. (See graphic below.)
  • A very rosy projection for shale (both fossil gas and oil) that might be far from viable.
  • Renewable energy price forecasts are unreasonably high.
    • Forecasted prices for 2022 for both wind and solar are well above what are already being bid into commercial contracts.
      • The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is projected (see graphic below) to be in the ballpark of $30-$60 per mWh for new wind projects. Xcel Energy, in Colorado bids, had median prices of under $20 for wind and with with battery storage was just $21.
      • Solar LCOE is projected slightly above wind, in the $35-$70 range. Going back to Xcel, the median price for a 2023 solar project was $29.50.


EIA forecasted 2022 electricity project pricing (Annual Energy Outlook, 2018, page 16

  • Failure to include a realistic ‘aggressive’ clean energy futures alternative scenario
    • Globally, renewable energy (primarily wind and solar), storage, and associated systems (smart grid/power management/energy efficiency/electric vehicles) are booming with rapidly growing market shares, new innovations (technical, financial, business processes) emerging every day, and prices plummeting faster than almost any specialist expected to happen even just a few years ago.
      • As to the last, solar and wind project bids are increasingly coming in at lower prices than what is being paid for existing coal (and nuclear) electricity production.
      • IRENA forecasts that by 2020 renewable energy will be cost-competitive (if not cost advantaged) against fossil fuel (including natural gas) electricity production in most of the world.
      • Electric vehicle (batteries and otherwise) prices are falling fast and the ‘cost to own’ an EV, in much of the world, already below that for a traditional gas engine with projections along the lines of “within 20 years, if trends hold, 200-mile-range 4-seater EVs, with awesome acceleration and modern amenities, will be cheaper than the cheapest cars sold in the US today.”
    • While the baseline is absurd in the low-ball projections of these to 2050, what is even more concerning is that the EIA WEO does not have an “aggressive clean energy penetration” alternative scenario that comes anywhere close to projecting a possible (actually plausible) path forward for renewable energy.
      • For example, consider that point about electric vehicles: if in 2040, EVs are ‘cheaper than the cheapest cars sold in the US today”, why would (as per the EIA forecast) EVs hold less than 20 of the total market in 2050?  An aggressive scenario might more appropriately postulate long-range EVs at 75 percent market share by 2050.

Examining what is happening in the real world, that absent ‘aggressive’ clean energy scenario might be the most realistic one while also being one where US energy carbon emissions fall and the nation is on the path to serious climate change mitigation.

Like an observer impacting the observed, forecasting impacts the real world through helping inform and drive investments. Strong forecasting enables decision-makers a window as to their options and enables more informed decision-making even in the face of the uncertainty that is the future. Flawed forecasting undermines sound decision-making and can create significant harm into the future.  The EIA forecast suggests that renewables are marginally competitive with, for example, new nuclear power plant projects. This, quite simply, has no basis in the real world.  Making investments with a belief that EIA forecasting is sound creates risk for ill-advised investments and an increased likelihood of the financial havoc of even more stranded fossil-fuel assets in the decades to come.

Sigh … going back to Adam Scott

For anyone who actually wants to use energy forecasts as a tool to inform sound decision-making, for directing investment wisely, and for meeting the obvious goal of achieving climate safety – we need outlooks with credible assumptions. It’s a shame we can’t trust the EIA to provide them.

NOTE: Sadly, to make clear, this is a recurrent problem with EIA which has consistently been underforecasting renewable energy system penetration. ;asldjkf  See, for example, Department of Energy’s “Annual Outlook 2015” is out: what do we know w/out reading it? For a selected bibliography on this, see end of When it comes to renewable energy forecasting, Japan’s forecasting follows world lead.

UPDATE: Some material post posting of relevance:

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(R)Evolution, not war

February 5th, 2018 · No Comments

Human society has faced major shifts, periods of significant change, ranging from the printing press to the industrial revolution to the information age to the massively expansive set of changes in the 21st century from communications to biotechnology to energy systems.  And, when it comes to economic moves off 19th energy systems — the burning of coal — Senator Ed Markey capture it right:

The telegraph and telephone weren’t a war on the Pony Express and signal fires, but a (r)evolution in how we communicate and share information.

Cell phones weren’t a war on copper lines and emails weren’t a war on the US postal service but a leap frog past them but another (r)evolution in how we communicate and share information.

Steamships weren’t a war on clipper ships and horseless carriages weren’t a war on horses but a (r)evolution in how we move around the world.

Canning and refrigeration weren’t a war on salt, but a (r)evolution in how we store and ship food.

Moving into the 21st century with cost-effective, clean solar, wind, storage, smart grind, and other clean-energy options isn’t a war on 19th energy systems but a (r)evolution to a better system.

Donald Trump and other fossil fools are caught in false rhetoric about a ‘war on coal’ that ignores technical, economic, and financial realities. They wish to drive the United States into reinvesting and relying on a costlier, less-efficient energy system that will cost Americans more and disadvantage the nation economically against those embracing the ever-less expensive and cost-advantaged clean-energy systems.

And, of course, that isn’t even accounting for the pollution impacts from coal.

10,000s of dead Americans … now that would merit undertaking a war on coal because, now that viable and cost-advantaged options exist to retire coal, those promoting increased (and maintaining existing) coal use are engaged in a war against humanity.



  • Greenpeace did a series of quite interesting analyses, over time, about what it might take to pursue a clean Energy [r]Evolution enabling phasing out coal and other fossil fuels. Thus, the use of ‘[r]evolution] rather than Senator Markey’s Revolution.

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(not) News: Solar cooling won’t solve climate change

February 5th, 2018 · 1 Comment

Press releases are often designed to spin, to put things in as favorable a light as possible, and to (by their very nature) boost visibility.  Putting aside those intended to deceive, the “profession” of public affairs tends to that spin and even the most well-intentioned spin can inadvertently deceive (especially against a larger context).  For example, as discussed before, breathless press releases about a laboratory advance with batteries or solar cell efficiency or making fuel from air can lead to viral ‘we’ve solved the world’s problems’ commentary.  While vulnerable, myself, to this sort of techno-optimism, these viruses (viral events) typically ignore the realities of the challenges of transformation from laboratory success to mass commercial deployment: everything from the simple truth that the lab test might not prove true with more extensive testing; to the very long timelines from lab invention to marketplace; and to the obstacles placed before innovation in the market place itself.

Sometimes, the press release writers strive, seriously, to avoid the potential for misunderstanding and unreasonable use of the press release and the underlying work. Regretfully, this effort doesn’t necessarily prevent misuse. I fear a recent press release will be misrepresented as a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ story re climate change when, well, that is not the case. A moment for truth before discussing the Scripp’s press release that sparked this post:

With significant reductions in solar radiation hitting the Earth (a Grand Solar Minimum), global warming (climate change) would continue.  Against any scenario of human emissions (from business as usual to even dramatic reductions in emissions), the reduced solar emissions would have marginal impact on warming.

Now, Scripps’ researchers have done work to try to quantify, with some detail, how much solar radiation might decrease in the coming decades and the impact of this on climate change.  The press release author, Robert Monroe, is quite careful to emphasize that any such ‘cooling’ due to reduced solar radiation will not ‘solve’ climate change.

Here is the opening sentence:

The Sun might emit less radiation by mid-century, giving planet Earth a chance to warm a bit more slowly but not halt the trend of human-induced climate change.

And, the closing words:

a main conclusion of the study is that “a future grand solar minimum could slow down but not stop global warming.”

Now, knowing that Donald Trump, Devin Nunes, and other climate-science deniers have no tendency to skew — or outright misrepresent and/or lie — data, is it unreasonable that the ‘movie critic’ clip and representation of this report and press release might be something like …

grand solar minimum … increases risk of dangerous global cooling if warming is reduced …

Consider those words … that is (a) absolutely not what the press release author nor study’ author’s concluded and/or emphasized but (b) is actually just a twisted variation on that conclusion.  Implausible (that ‘if warming is reduced’ such that we might have ‘dangerous global cooling’) but not outright false (by definition, if there is reduced solar radiation AND reduced human pollution that then creates a greater chance of cooling — even if that ‘greater chance’ is somewhere in range of a null probability).

UPDATE: And, well, such predicted (ab)use of the press release and study is occurring.

On a more benign level, what is the chance of the casual journalist (that casual tweeter) emphasizing something like “scientist predict sun will warm less by mid-century and reduce climate change risks” — not intending to mislead but, in a casual or character limited effort to communicate, misleading nonetheless?

Honestly, how far should a press release author go in striving to structure language to avoid those who will, shamelessly, manipulate the language and misrepresent the fundamental work?  What wording forestalls the ‘casual’, unthinking, misrepresentation? Perhaps, in this case, how about this headline:

Climate change will not be stopped by cooler sun

In this world of ‘tweet shares’, that headline is what the vast majority of people would see and would the opening words to frame the thinking of anyone who read past the headline (including reporters and bloggers) thinking of doing a story.

Would that be better science communication and reduce risks of (intentional or unintentional) misleading others?  Perhaps …

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